I have been following this case closely since last year and I must say that there seems to be more to it than meets the eye. The story as it is being reported in home educating circles is that Christer and Annie Johansson, who live in Sweden, wished to home educate their seven year old son. They were harassed by the authorities and tried to leave the country so that they could home educate their son in peace somewhere else. As the plane taking them from Sweden was on the runway, it was halted and the police took the boy away and social workers then placed him in foster care, where he still remains a year later. And all because his loving parents wanted to home educate him!
Now one of the things which aroused my suspicions was the slick way that this story is being presented by some home educators. We read that 'armed police stormed the plane'. This conjures up images of a SWAT team armed with sub-machine guns bursting in through the windows and grabbing the child. In fact all uniformed police officers are armed in Sweden. They did not 'storm' the plane, simply boarded it with social workers and asked the Johanssons to come back to the terminal. There are a lot of little embellishments to the story of this sort. Another curious thing is that in Western Europe, the fact that the Johanssons are devout Christians and that this was the motivation both for their home educating and also for leaving Sweden, is played down. Sometimes it is not mentioned at all. In the USA though, this is the main line that is being taken on the case. So what is the background?
Christer Johansson is a Swedish man who lived for a while in India. While there, he met and married a woman called Annie who belonged to a very religious Christian family. She became pregnant and the couple went to live in Sweden, where their son Dominic was born on September 9th 2001. Both parents suffer from severe depression. When the boy was two, Christer was very depressed. So depressed in fact that he became addicted to anti-depressants and was recommended for electro-convulsive therapy, which he declined. His wife has also had mental health problems for which she has been hospitalised. Neither parent wished their son to see health workers, possibly for religious reasons, although this is not certain. Both parents also apparently suffer from heart problems;
" Annie has been in bed with a heart condition that was exacerbated by the abduction of their son. (Tonight Christer emailed me that he had fallen into a state of semiconsciousness with an irregular heart rhythm.)"
It is agreed by all sides that the Johanssons did not follow the correct legal procedure for those wishing to home educate in Sweden, which involves submitting a home school plan. Instead, they reached an informal arrangement with the principle of the local school when their son turned seven in the autumn of 2008. At this age, Swedish children start school.
Now things get a little strange. In the summer of 2009, Christer and Annie Johansson disposed of all their belongings. They announced that they intended to go and live in India so that they could minister to the poor; this was in connection with their Christian faith. Two things strike one at once. Firstly, if an individual wishes to sell all that he has, give the money to the poor and then follow Jesus and tend to destitute children in an Indian orphanage, that is a very praiseworthy and good thing to do. I have nothing but admiration for such people. When you have a seven year old son, matters are a little different. Secondly, a person with a history of severe depression who disposes of all his belongings in this way sets alarm bells ringing in professional ears. This sort of behaviour is sometimes a prelude to suicide. When two people with a history of mental health problems and severe depression do this, there can be an awful suspicion that they are on the verge of taking their own lives.
So what actually happened on June 26th last year? Two people, both with histories of mental health problems got rid of all their belongings. They told everybody that they were going to live in poverty in India, tending for children in an orphanage. Their physical health was also poor; both had heart problems. They intended to take their seven year old son with them, a child who had been raised in rather odd circumstances. I don't think we even need to think about home education here. Given this background, I would also be very worried about the child's future welfare. The concern of the social workers in Sweden was not that this child was being home educated. It was that a Swedish child was being taken abroad to an uncertain future in the company of two strange and possibly disturbed people. They acted to protect his welfare, but not because he was being home educated. If a similar case occurred in this country, I for one hope that social workers would behave in exactly the same way to protect the interests of a vulnerable child.
As I said yesterday, this case is a bit of a red herring as far as home education is concerned. I think that the Swedish authorities would have behaved in precisely the same way had the child been a pupil at a school. The real question here is one of protecting the rights of a child when those rights conflict with the desire of his parents to live an unconventional lifestyle. It seems to me that social workers were faced with a very tricky problem and made what seemed to them to be a good decision in the interests of the child. We have to ask ourselves one final question. Is Dominic Johansson better off now living a in a comfortable home in a prosperous European country than he would have been had he spent the last year living in poverty in an Indian orphanage?