Abuse and eugenically sterilization policies – “Once you’re in the middle of it, its difficult to lower the ambition”
DIAS Chair Klaus Petersen, professor of welfare history, has completed a comprehensive report for the Ministry of Social Affairs on the treatment of mentally and physically disable persons in Danish institutions 1933-1980.
2500 boxes of archive material have been searched through and a slew of interviews have been conducted - resulting in an extensive report of nearly 500 pages. Leading the project together with Sarah Smed, Director of the Danish Welfare Museum, the report was initiated in January 2020 and concluded this March.
Because of this huge amount of data, the participating researchers found it necessary to donate chunks of their free time to finish the project within the deadline:
“Once you’re in the middle of it, it’s difficult to lower the ambition”, says Petersen, “so we decided to go all in.”
The report documents abuse (such as violence, extensive use of force, and examples of sexual abuse) as well as eugenically motivated sterilization policies, daily life at the institutions, and the experiences of former institutionalized persons. Petersen’s and Smed’s team were tasked with pursuing a ”special focus on failure and abuse, such as physical/ sexual assault, psychological violence, serious deficiencies in medical, practical or emotional care.” As such, the report reflected especially the problematic aspects of the welfare state and not only the success stories.
A realistic picture
When asked how this report may possibly affect the general view of the welfare system in Denmark, Petersen, who also was involved in the Godhavn inquiry (“Godhavnsrapporten”) ten years ago, which had great societal effects, says:
“Danes are often proud of our welfare state. The report documents that not all groups were treated in the same way – and included in the welfare state on equal terms. If we imagine the welfare state to be a picture-perfect system, these stories add to the crackle of that idea. But the findings in the report are not a huge shock. Many of the problems were also reported on by the media in their own time. What is important is to add these stories to the larger picture of the welfare state – some things were good, some were bad. We must not unilaterally subscribe to the perfect picture, but a realistic one.”
Although the unreported numbers of individuals who were wronged in one way or another is assumed to be large, just shining a light on part of the greater picture can have an impact, according to Petersen:
“There is a recognition in just getting your story told; as your story and not something that should be hid or swept to the site”, Petersen says.
As a result of giving voice to the previously neglected vulnerable groups, the report has gotten attention from multiple interest organizations representing groups who was institutionalized in the period, including LEV, a national association for people with developmental disability. Anni Sørensen, the forewoman of LEV, finds the report to be a solid foundation for a formal apology from the Prime Minister:
“It is beyond any discussion that the former detainees are entitled to an official apology.”, she says on the organization’s webpage.