The Legal Framework for Work with Juveniles in Secure Settings in Denmark

The legal basis for work in the context of secure detention and coercive/restrained settings is an article in the law of Social Service. It is not an article in the common criminal law. According to Social Service law the decision is taken by a group of experts in the municipality. The decision of sending somebody under custody waiting for trial is taken by law. It is also the same trial that can send a young person aged 15 to 18 in a closed unit as alternative to an ordinary prison. There seems to be no discrepancy between the legal framework and field practice. There is a right of appeal against secure detention or coercive/restrained settings. In Denmark we have the Ombudsmand – or minister of social affairs. The secure detention or coercive/restrained settings have influence on visiting rights of family and friends. So have the police. During secure detention, the juvenile is allowed to spend time outside of his room/cell.


Some research, carried out by semi-private research institutes, is providing evidence with regards to the integration of secure detention and coercive/restrained settings with a view to creating a general concept of juvenile assistance. The Social Pedagogues Union has a certain role to play in this ‘game’. The research themes have considered issues such as the statement of a conservative politician, “If youngsters have committed criminal acts, they are sentenced to Disneyland and not to jail, where they belong …”. However, there has been no concrete research carried by authorised research institutions such as universities. The dialogue there has been between research and practice has shown a lack of serious discussions therefore. The state (e.g. universities), ministries, NGOs and private donors can finance research.

Pedagogical concepts – structures and organisational forms

The method is termed social pedagogical. It is based on following aim: care-giving and support to development in combination with education (teaching/learning).
In Denmark we have seven ‘closed institutions’. They are situated in the five regions with two in Copenhagen.

Statistics 2007

Denmark had a population of 5.4 million.

There were 878 placements with an average duration time of 48 days (and nights).

641 were remanded to an alternative to adult prisons.

102 were sentenced to ‘youth sanction’ in Stage 1 (12% of all placements).

69 returned from unsuccessful Stage 2 placements (8%).

38 were placed for pedagogical observation.

2 were placed for a longer duration of pedagogical treatment.

11 were admitted because of ‘dangerous criteria’ (violence, threats etc.).

12 were serving a part of their sentences.

6 were placed because of other criteria.

More than 50% did not an Nordic ethnic background.

Fewer than 10% were girls.


The members of the teams are mostly social pedagogues, social workers, school teachers, psychologists, psychiatrists, different kinds of therapists and specialist teachers. In-service training and further education is undertaken on a voluntary basis and as part of the work schedule. The in-service training or further education used by the professionals is financed by the municipalities, the regions – and sometimes by the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Secure detention coercive/restrained settings are used, mostly because of violence or threats. Training is therefore a must for the workforce – it is compulsory for staff members working in the area of secure detention and coercive/restrained settings to undergo special training in subjects such as suicide prevention, drug awareness training, and behavioural training with regards to aggressive juveniles. It is a part of in-service training. All authorities and institutions dealing with secure detention and coercive/restrained settings cooperate with each other in order to assist juveniles in the most efficient way before, during and after their time in secure detention and coercive/restrained settings. All secure units are under the oversight of a psychiatrist, as many of the young people have a psychological/psychiatric diagnoses.

Pedagogical concepts – methods and instruments
based on departmental orders (Ministry of Social- and Welfare Affairs)

We all know about the most known diagnoses that are relate to mental disorders. We have had a long discussion on the question:

  • Who are authorised to make diagnoses?
    •   authorised psychologists and psychiatrists
  • Who are using the diagnoses?
  • What are the diagnoses used for?

Evaluation is a word used in everyday language. Even in an average family they would use the word, maybe in a very broad sense. School kids are using ‘evaluation’ in a pedagogical sense when they are consulting the coaching teacher – the supervisor. In a professional environment, evaluation means:
How can we plan the stay for the student (the young people are called students or pupils)?
When are we having evaluation meetings?
Who are the participants?
There are intern evaluations

  • among the staff
  • with the student
  • with the students in a democratic forum. The staff are represented by the principal, who has the right to talk, but not vote, and takes minutes. There are guidelines for what can be discussed in the forum, and for what and how meetings are conducted.

There are external evaluations – participants are:
– the parents
– the mentor
– the social worker from the municipality
– the caseworker from the municipality
– the supervisor from the municipality,
and sometimes from
– police
– SSP (school, social worker & police)
If radical decisions are going to be taken, for example against the family’s wishes, a committee has to take the decision. Its members include a judge, a politician, the student’s case worker and an expert (e.g. a psychologist, a social pedagogue). This decision can be appealed to the Ombudsman – or to Børnerådet, a committee of experts independent of the political system.
Recording of social and psycho-pedagogical work

For all children and young people who are receiving social services there must be an action plan, including a plan for education. The plan has to evaluated once a year (or more often if necessary).
Every student has a record concerning their daily work and evaluations of progress. The authorities have access to the record, and conclusions are sent to the case worker involved. Parents also have the right of access to documents.
The juvenile’s Lebenswelt and social background plays a role in pedagogical work.

The role depends of two things:

  • the attitude of the social pedagogues
  • the student’s interest in “opening up” in confidence.

‘Narrative method’ is very popular in the academic human studies and it has been implemented in many pedagogical institutions.

What does aftercare mean in a Nordic /Danish context?

Since 1976 we have had an ongoing social political discussion on the question Do we need to have aftercare in our welfare state? in Denmark. Politicians have not been able to find a sufficient answer. And therefore our parliament has not been able to agree on a concept for legislation that could give guidelines for social pedagogues and social workers how to offer the appropriate social service to young people that are in desperate need of aftercare.
Several times experts and researchers have acted as whistleblowers but their messages have met with deaf ears. It is obvious to everyone that we need a social pedagogical policy and an organised system to deliver aftercare to young people who have been excluded from society.
How can a welfare state produce so many losers?

There are many answers to that question. But let’s go a little back in history – and see, if we can find a reasonable explanation.
In 1905 the Danish parliament legislated a new law called Børneloven – Children’s law which was the first law in Europe given to protect children against all kinds of abuse in a 1905 context. Child and youth care organisations – mostly based on Christianity – had been fighting for this law ever since the Danish Constitution was legislated in 1849. Now the implementation could begin. And it was a success. A very well-known Danish politician, Peter Sabroe, now started a war against any private or institutional organisation that did not live up to a certain standard and to a certain ethic code in work with children and young people who for different reasons could not live with their biological parents. In that context aftercare came on the political agenda.
Legislation made it possible for organisations and public social services to offer young people social pedagogical and social work assistance and help, for example in accessing education, apprenticeships in workplaces, somewhere to live, financial help – and – not least, mentors.

In 1933
a new social law was passed: Socialreformen it was called. Related to this law all municipalities had to provide public services called Børneværnet . Public institutions were required to supervise and control both private and public child and youth care. In this context aftercare was described as a necessity. Young people who needed aftercare help could be protected by the Børneværn up to the age of 23 – and sometimes longer.
After the Second World war the social democratic welfare model in Denmark was formed and slowly implemented in legislating e.g. social laws in 1946. And of cause, also in practice. It was a success! But in despite of this, the number of children living in residential homes and in extra-family care increased dramatically. At the end of 1950 the Danish population was 4.5 million inhabitants. More than 10,000 children were not living with their biological parents or families. In 2012 we are 5.4 million inhabitants and we have some 12,000 children not living with their biological families.

In 1974
the Danish parliament legislated a new social reform that was implemented on 1 April 1976, called Bistandsloven. As a consequence of this law the Børneværnet was dismantled. The new law was an umbrella law in the sense that, whatever social problem you might have, you would need to go to the local social services centre. The motto or keyword was that the family should stay together. If any family developed or became involved in social problems the social workers and the social pedagogues should try to make as little intervention as possibly. They should try not to undertake any kind of forced removal and, if a child could not remain in everyday life with their families, they should go and live with a foster family primarily – and for a very short time – and as close to the biological family as possible. The conclusion was that we did not need aftercare anymore!
But, as mentioned above, experts, researchers and politicians from the left wing in the Parliament blew their whistles by referring to the fact that the numbers of children and young people living in residential homes or foster families were still increasing – not much, but still increasing from 1% of the population up to 1.5 %.
In 1998 a new social law was passed, called Serviceloven . It replaced Bistandsloven. The motto was described in three priorities:

  • At the first level advice was offered free to people with social problems in a broad sense.
  • At the second level a series of public services were delivered, usually paid for, for example, kindergarten, nursery, recreation and education for adults.
  • The third level provided special deals and relief measures for individuals with physical or mental disabilities or with special social problems, such as placements in care homes.

But the whistle blowers kept on whistling: we need aftercare. The number of young drop outs is increasing, especially young boys from other ethnic backgrounds who dropped out of school. The labour market was not able to include them – and in many of the big cities we saw locations changing into ghettos. We call it the ghettoisation of a minority in society.
Now – 14 years after the legislating the new Serviceloven whistle blowers are still blowing – and the politicians seem not to hear it. It is on the agenda in all media. Researchers are reporting every day about young people who are trapped in social exclusion at an early stage in life. This applies not only people with other ethic backgrounds: we have young people who cannot live up to standard requirements at school and who are termed technically illiterate.
The goal for the next generation is that more than 90% of a cohort should move through a secondary education. Is that possible? You can ask. The answer is, yes BUT it requires a lowering of the academic level. Is that possible? Yes, if we rephrase the content of secondary education for example by creating more technically oriented colleges with practical content.

Is there absolutely no possibility to offer aftercare for young people?
Yes, we do have a legislation that makes it possible. It is called Ungdomssanktion. As a part of the social law, we have a section that gives the social aftercare services power to impose a penalty on young people who have been into heavy criminality, as an alternative to ordinary imprisonment in jail. They are ‘sentenced’ to be placed in a special institution in a closed unit. And they can stay there up to one year. On average the stay will typically last from 3 to 6 months. During the stay the young people will have to participate in different workshops and school classes. After the stay the young people have to receive aftercare for a year or two in a special institution, where they have to go to school or to work in different kind of handyman workshops.
The configuration problem

My research shows that one of the major obstacles for the young dropouts is in the need to understand and cope with social rules and their cultural context. Training of this type could be the key to a better inclusion and innovation. It could be the content of aftercare. It is a challenge for social pedagogy and social work. Can social pedagogues and social workers match this challenge?
The Nordic welfare model based on the Danish tradition is about to be phased out in Denmark. It means that aftercare is given back to where it came from: back to private welfare organisations. The question is: Can the private organisations match the challenge? I have no answers to that question.

Dr Soeren Hegstrup is an Assistant Professor at University College, Sealand, Denmark.

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