The European Parliament’s Committee on Petitions last week approved – with 20 votes in favour and one against – a working document filed concerning the fact-finding visit to Denmark by a delegation of the Committee in June.
The objective of the visit was to examine the Danish legal system’s handling of cross-border custody cases, including child custody and visitation rights, as well as cases of international child abduction, after a number of such cases had been brought to the attention of the committee.
When the members of the delegation – MEPs Angelika Werthmann (Austria), Peter Jahr (Germany) and Carlos Iturgaiz Angulo (Spain) – arrived in Denmark last June, they expected to speak with the justice minister, Morten Bødskov (Socialdemokraterne), the then social affairs minister, Karen Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne), and the national police commissioner, Jens Henrik Højberg, to discuss the growing number of custody cases the EU saw coming out of Denmark. None of the three Danes made themselves available to the committee, however. They instead sent representatives who, according to Werthmann, told them they only had a “short time” to spend with them.
“I can say, without a doubt, that this committee has never, ever been treated in this fashion anywhere else,” Werthmann said during a press conference at the time.
Werthmann promised that the fact-finding group would present its findings – and the history of the snub by the authorities – to the full committee, and she has now made good on that vow.
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Something rotten in the state of Danish custody cases
The document adopted states that the Danish Parental Responsibility Act – which makes contact with a child by both parents obligatory – often creates situations in which mothers risk being imprisoned for protecting their child from abusive fathers and abusive fathers obtain contact and even full custody rights to the very children they abuse.
“We have cases of abused children being sent back, by the courts, to the parent who has abused them,” Werthmann said. “There is something wrong here.”
The vote by the committee to accept the report underscored that Denmark can not exclude itself from fully respecting its political obligations under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
“The impacts of the Danish custody law seem to be disproportionately hard on mothers,” reads the report. “In practice, Danish citizens (in particular fathers) have a strong advantage in custody conflicts, and Danish mothers as well as non-Danish EU citizens and third-country citizens feel they are being discriminated against by the Danish authorities.”
The committee said that Danish laws result in “legal uncertainty” that jeopardise the fundamental rights of the child and cause unnecessary additional trauma and suffering to all involved. The committee stressed that foreign mothers and fathers – both EU and non-EU citizens – must be ensured equal rights with regard to custody.
The document is not short on specific recommendations about how Danish authorities should better handle child custody cases.
Denmark is urged to, among other things, fully implement and enforce the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction and to fully comply with the Child Protection Convention (which it signed in 2011).
The Danish authorities should also ensure that all claims of discrimination are registered, especially cases involving foreigners. The Social Affairs Ministry is also encouraged to establish a committee to help and provide support in cases of reported abuse and discrimination with regard to Danish and non-Danish mothers and their children.
Danish authorities across the board are admonished in the report to investigate the specific cases that spurred the visit by the fact-finding team in the first place.
Oliver’s mother leads the charge
Marion Weilharter, the Austrian mother of Oliver, the boy who is the subject of perhaps the most high profile child custody case in Danish history has long questioned why Denmark has been allowed to continue to violate international law.
“[Denmark is] an EU member state,” she said. “It has signed international agreements, so why can’t the other member states force Denmark to honour the law?”
Werthmann hoped that the committee vote would begin to put pressure on Danish authorities to comply.
“The result of [last week’s] vote is a very strong and clear signal in support of the petitioners and their children,” said Werthmann. “We expect that Denmark is going to implement our recommendations now, as that is usually the case.”
Werthmann said that there was “no time to lose” and that it was unacceptable “that the youngest citizens’ fundamental rights are not being respected”.
Read the full report approved by the committee