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Threats to Swedish social service workers: New inquiry proposes stricter legislation

Threats to Swedish social service workers: New inquiry proposes stricter legislation

| Text: Gunhild Wallin

Threats and harassment against public officials in Sweden are commonplace and on the rise. This has major consequences for individual employees and risks undermining democracy in the long term. A new public inquiry proposes stricter penalties for violence towards public officials as well as making it a crime to insult public officials.

Social workers working closely with vulnerable people might face threats and violence, that is nothing new. But a new Swedish inquiry warns that the threat level has risen considerably. According to the inquiry "Stronger protection for public officials against violence, threats and harassment, SOU 2024:1", 48 per cent of social workers have been exposed to threats or violence in the past 12 months.  

Everyday life became more dangerous and unsafe for social workers operating in vulnerable areas dealing with children and young people when, a few years ago, rumours emerged that Swedish social services were kidnapping children.

Source: YouTube

The picture above is a screen grab from a YouTube video showing a child being taken into care by the Swedish police. It is one of many social media posts that created strong protests against Swedish authorities. Photo: YouTube

A viral disinformation campaign in social media started in the autumn of 2021 and grew through 2022 and 2023. This also led to demonstrations against Swedish social services both in Sweden and abroad.

Similar campaigns have been carried out against other Nordic countries too, including Norway. In India the criticism became so widespread that a Bollywood film was made, featuring one of the country's most famous female actors, called "Mrs. Chatterjee vs. Norway", with the subtitle "A Woman's Fight against a Nation.”

Mrs Chatterjee vs. Norway

A film poster for the Indian film "Mrs. Chatterjee vs. Norway". Photo: Zee Studios/Emmay Entertainment.

“Since the disinformation campaign, we clearly see that the threat level has worsened for those working with children and young people. Our social care surveys also show how the situation has gradually deteriorated since 2010.

"There is a comprehensive problem related to threats and violence to people working in roles of authority, and in institutions,” says Fredrik Hjulström, head of social policy at the Union for Professionals, Akademikerförbundet SSR.

Photo: Theresia Viska

Fredrik Hjuström, head of social policy at the Union for Professionals, Akademikerförbundet SSR. Photo: SSR.

Akademikerförbundet SSR is the trade union for social workers, among others. People working in authority roles can have a significant influence on people’s lives. They assess whether children need to be taken into custody, whether young people need to be forcibly placed into residential care or whether substance abuse has become so serious that involuntary measures are necessary.

They work closely with vulnerable people and might face threats, violence and harassment on a regular basis.

“We hear about everything from violence and threats to more hidden threats like ‘I have information about you and I know where you live and where your children go to nursery’ and everything in between. But few are willing to step forward and talk about it because it might increase the threat level,” explains Fredrik Hjulström.

He thinks many social workers have got used to milder threats and perhaps tell their immediate boss but nothing more. If there is more direct violence or clearer threats, the victim in most cases gets support from their employer. 

“Reporting incidents to the police is more difficult. If the person themselves file a report, their information becomes known and many of our members do not want to be in that database,” he says. 

It is also often the youngest social workers who are in the toughest jobs. The challenging work environment has made more experienced social workers apply for other positions away from working with children and young people in vulnerable areas.  

Previously, a lot of professional experience was required to secure the most attractive positions. Today, this is not the case; instead, the positions are filled with young social workers who have recently graduated from college.

“The harder the situation is in a municipality, the more of the social workers are young and inexperienced. The salary is also important. Many municipalities pay newly hired people well, which makes the more experienced social workers feel overlooked,” says Fredrik Hjulström. 

Fear can affect the exercise of authority

“We are increasingly concerned about how our members in social services are subjected to dreadful slander and outright threats,” wrote Akademikerförbundet SSR’s chair Heike Erkers in an opinion piece in Svenska Dagbladet on 31 October 2023.

At the same time, she pointed out that as many as 60 per cent of social workers in vulnerable areas had been subjected to threats, which in turn had affected their professional practice.

“Among those working with involuntary measures, 4 per cent of respondents in our social worker surveys have reported avoiding acting in accordance with the Care of Young Persons Act (LVU) or the Care of Substance Abusers Act (LVM) because they have been afraid. 

“In vulnerable areas, 7 per cent have avoided taking action. It is also important to remember that inadequate resources are even more often cited as a reason for not taking action," says Fredrik Hjulström. 

Insults can become a crime

The aim of the inquiry ”Stronger protection for public employees against violence, threats and harassment”, SOU 2024:1, is to address the growing threat faced by many in the public sector who have close contact with clients. 

Based on a broad range of evidence from reports and interviews, the investigators have concluded that within the entire field of public administration people are vulnerable to violence, threats, and harassment. It is extensive and it is increasing.

Those most affected are people with duties involving exercising authority, meaning decisions that can have significant effects on individuals. Examples include law enforcement agencies, as well as supervisors and those who have a deciding vote on permits, compensations and grants. The most vulnerable are the officials who have extensive and close contact with the public and clients.

Lars Ahlberk

John Ahlberk, Director General of the Swedish Accident Investigation Board, led the inquiry on better protection for public employees. Photo: Peter Knutson, SHK.

The inquiry concludes that more support is needed for public employees against violence, threats and harassment. It proposes increased penalties for threats and violence against public officials, as well as making insulting public servants a crime.

The inquiry also calls for less exposure of public servants’ names in decisions and other actions that document measures, as well as stronger protection of information about public servants and their families. 

The inquiry “Stronger protection for public employees against violence, threats and harassment” is still out for consultation, but the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR) is mainly positive and Fredrik Hjulström would also like to see stronger protection of members.  

“One difficult issue is to anonymise decisions, and we are not advocates for that. Those who are affected by a decision have the right to know who made that decision and on what basis. In order to succeed with social work it is impossible to be anonymous.

"An authority is made up of individuals and if you don’t dare to come forward, we have a problem. Then the threats against officials become a threat against the system,” he says. 

Cooperation between employers and trade unions

Trade unions and the employers’ organisation SALAR already cooperate to increase knowledge about threats and violence in the social care sector and to spread knowledge about what is being done to improve the work environment in the sector. There is a webcast which focuses on threats and violence and how employers and officials can deal with it.

“Working with vulnerable people is hard, and people in the sector know it. Many are good at their jobs, but sometimes there can be too much pressure. We did see the challenges in the wake of the disinformation campaign and noticed how mistrust in social services increased. 

“That is when it becomes particularly important to be visible in the community and not communicate less – but more. It is very important to be present in the community and to foster dialogue,” says Karin Falck, an administrator at SALAR’s social services section who works with the social partners in order to create joint information material.

She paints a similar picture of threats and violence in the social care sector to Fredrik Hjulström and highlights the problem of unauthorised pressure as a way to try to influence social services decisions. 

“We want unauthorised pressure to become a crime, and the authority or employer should be the ones to report violence or threats to the police – not the individual official,” says Karin Falck.

She also highlights the problem of high turnover figures within the sector.

“Many young people work with the most vulnerable clients, but we know that long experience in the profession is a protective factor,” she says.

There is already work being done in several of the most vulnerable areas to get staff to stay on and to prevent threats and violence. Good examples are being communicated to the municipalities. How are the localities? How do you create stability in the group and how can management provide support?

Local cooperation is important, for example with the police, and it is crucial to have a presence in vulnerable areas. Many municipalities organise listening meetings and initiate conversations in vulnerable areas. Good things are happening, but we do not hear about them, she says.

A new social services law which will emphasise preventative work comes into effect on 1 July 2025. Many municipalities are already gearing up for the new development of social services. Extra resources have been promised. 

“Work needs to be done that prevents segregation and creates the most equal chances possible for children and young people. Those at risk of entering into criminal activities need to be given the chance to integrate into society instead. It is important to have a greater vision and for the social services sector to become a long-term part of societal development, says Karin Falck. 

The LVU report

LVU report

is a report written by researchers Magnus Ranstorp and Linda Ahlerup from the Swedish Defence University. It examines a campaign that began in 2022, claiming Swedish social services kidnap children and target children with foreign heritage and a Muslim faith.  It developed into what has become known as the largest influence campaign ever directed against Sweden.

Download the report here (in Swedish):


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