Appeals Court Reversal Stuns Parents of Boy Seized by the State

On Monday, December 10, 2012, also International Human Rights Day, a Swedish appeals court reversed a lower court ruling in favor of Annie and Christer Johansson and terminated their parental rights in regard to their son Dominic.

The boy and his parents were on board a jetliner minutes from departing Sweden for Annie’s home country of India when Dominic was seized in June 2009. The reason authorities initially gave for taking Dominic was that he had been homeschooled. During subsequent medical evaluations Dominic was found to have missed some vaccinations and “had cavities” in his teeth. During the first months following his seizure the parents were only permitted to visit Dominic once every two weeks. This quickly became once every five weeks, and then in 2010 all visitations were cut off.

The United States Supreme Court has written that terminating parental rights is the Family Court equivalent of the death penalty. Every party to such an action, the court wrote in Stanley v. Illinois, must be afforded every procedural and substantive due process protection. In American courts this means that clear and convincing evidence, the civil equivalent of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is necessary before parental rights are terminated. The case of the Johanssons in Sweden demonstrates what can happen when the family is not respected as an integral unit of society.

Hopes Dashed

The parents’ hopes had risen after nearly three-and-a-half years of forced separation from their son when a district court ruled in June 2012 that they would retain their parental rights. Christer and Annie learned shortly thereafter that the Social Welfare Committee had appealed their victory. According to the family’s attorney, the Social Welfare Committee had ignored a request to review the case for over a year. The law requires that such a request be acted on within four months. However, the agency did not schedule such a review until the appeals court seemed ready to rule on the case. The December 19 date set for the review will likely be ignored as the social authorities have won their appeal and now have unrestricted guardianship over Domenic.

The case has attracted international attention, and two official representatives of the Indian government attended to observe the proceedings at the appeals court. In an interview after the hearing, Mr. Rakesh Misra, the Indian Embassy to Sweden’s first secretary, made a statement during a break in the hearing.

“I don’t see how they can claim that these are not good parents. My impression is that these are good parents,” he is reported to have told the family’s attorney.

“The Embassy [of India] may send a letter to the Swedish State Department and the Justice Department with our views on the case,” stated Mr. Misra after the case in an interview with a Swedish newspaper, noting that the embassy has full respect for the legal process and will not intervene in it. “However, we believe this is a case where you must carefully weigh both child’s rights and parents’ rights. One also cannot ignore the great cultural and social differences between Sweden and India.”

According to Misra, the embassy became involved in the case on Dominic during the past three months, given that the mission in Norway recently helped resolve a custody dispute concerning two Indian nationals.

“Grave Injustice”

Michael Donnelly, HSLDA’s director for international affairs, called the decision “brutal.”

“The United States Supreme Court has called the termination of parental rights of the Family Court equivalent of the death penalty. After a district court victory we had hoped the end of this nightmare was approaching. At this point we can only hope that the Swedish Supreme Court will intervene to correct this grave injustice,” he said. “The facts have shown Annie and Christer Johansson to be good parents. It is unconscionable that a court in a democratic country like Sweden could find it is in the child’s interests to remain separated from these parents. The pain, suffering and harm done to this family are incalculable.”