A Family's Flight

From the Swedish

Welfare State

by Jacob Young, Joan Westreich & Donna Foote

21 November, 1983

To his parents, Alan Lilja was a happy, healthy baby. But staffers at the state-run Swedish day-care center Alan attended saw a very different youngster, one who showed little emotion, avoided playing with other children and seemed to be treated coldly by his father, Karl. In October 1982 a Stockholm court said that Alan's health and development were at risk - and ordered Karl Lilja and his Polish-born ex-wife, Bozena, to turn their son over to government welfare officials. Rather than surrender their baby, the Liljas fled from Sweden and began a year long journey that took them to Norway, Poland, Finland and the United States. Now the Liljas must leave America or face deportation back to Sweden - where authorities may try again to take custody of Alan.

The case of Alan Lilja, now three, has touched off a heated controversy in Sweden over the country's laws regarding the welfare of children. Authorities from local social boards who suspect a child's "health or development" is threatened can take custody of a child before the courts have heard the charges in the matter. In theory, this allows social-welfare workers to remove youngsters immediately from homes where their lives may be endangered by negligent parents. But it also gives the state broad powers to intervene in family life, and about 25,000 Swedish children are now in the government's care - nearly half of them against the wishes of their parents. Swedish officials say the rules reflect a deep concern for the well-being of children. But critics charge that the regulations are too authoritarian, allowing the state to determine and enforce - strict standards of domestic behaviour. "There are probably good intentions behind the law," says Swedish appeals-court judge Brita Sundberg-Weitman. "But in Sweden there is a tendency to be intolerant of anything that is different."

Tactics: By the standards of his homeland, Karl Lilja is certainly different. In the midst of a career as a social worker, he became a born-again Christian; after joining a fundamentalist Pentecostal Church in 1977, he began studying for the ministry. In 1980 Lilja - who had already married and divorced once - wed Bozena Jadwiga, now 22. Soon after Alan's first birthday, the two divorced but continued to live together, a tactic some Swedish couples have used to take advantage of the higher welfare benefits the government provides to divorced mothers. After the court demanded custody of Alan, the Liljas left Sweden and eventually entered the United States on student visas in December 1982.

Sponsors: But since the Liljas never attended any classes, they were subject to deportation almost from the day they arrived. By contacting church and social-welfare agencies in America, Karl found a number of sponsors who provided the family with shelter and legal assistance. As late as last Fri day, Karl was hoping that a Pentecostal Church in Canada might agree to give his family sanctuary. At the weekend, even those hopes faded. It became clear that there was not enough time to make arrangements before the scheduled deportation date of Nov. 15 - and the family's supporters began raising money for plane tickets to Denmark.

The family is determined not to return to Sweden. The original order placing Alan in the care of the court has expired, but the Liljas fear that another could quickly be drafted. There has never been any suggestion that Alan was physically abused, and physicians' reports in Sweden showed him to be in fine health. The Liljas' wanderings cannot help their case with the child-welfare authorities, who could conceivably consider the family's odyssey a form of emotional negligence. But that very threat points up the continuing controversy: whatever the relative merits of the Liljas' case, should the state have such power to interfere simply because of a bureaucrat's disapproval?


Swedish couple enduring USA poverty to keep son

By John Brinkley

This article was published in USA TODAY on 5 November 5 1983.

Karl Lilja, his wife, Bozena, and their 2-year-old son, Alan, are holed up in New York City - refugees from the Swedish welfare state.

When welfare authorities in Stockholm ordered the Couple to surrender Alan to the state they fled the country. It was their only recourse after attempts to fight the order had been defeated and the Swedish Police were looking for me," said Lilja.

The Liljas abandoned their spacious apartment in the smart Stockholm Suburb of Bromma and arrived in New York in December. They now live in a vermin-infested room in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighbourhood.

An investigation ordered by social worker Anders Fall resulted in the ruling that would have made Alan a ward of the state. While the family was in Fall's office, Alan banged his head lightly on a desk. Because the child didn't cry, Lilja said. Fall wondered aloud if Alan might not have been better off in a mental hospital.

The investigation turned up a report from a day-care center that described Alan, then 11 months old, as "still a baby." He was "a quiet child" and was "not happy." His father, it said, was "a little strange."

Indeed, the report complained that it had been "impossible to get him to understand how we operate" and observed that Karl and Alan had "no eye contact." There were, however, no accusations of child abuse or negligence.

Lilja said Fall offered Bozena government funds to leave Karl and take Alan.

Swedish welfare authorities refuse to discuss the case, but Alan would have been among 24,000 children removed from their homes - and now ward of the state.

That statistic contrasts with 162 children under state care in Norway, 710 in Denmark and 552 Finland. In Great Britain, nearly seven times as Populous as Sweden, 15,000 children are in custody.

Complained Tuffa Birch-Iensen, leader of a group called Swedish Campaign for the Family: "The bureaucracy has gone mad. There is today an absolute industry in becoming foster parents. People earn a very good living at it"

Lilja, 42, a former social- worker, was training to be a Pentecostal Priest - before be fled Sweden. Until recently, the Liljas supported themselves by doing odd jobs, such as dish-washing - until a lawyer advised them that they were violating federal law prohibiting aliens from working without work permits.

Asked how he earned the money needed for survival, be replied, "That is a problem, yes,"

It is. The landlord Is threatening to evict the family for non-payment of rent; Consolidated Edison Co. is threatening to cut off their electricity; and they never were able to afford gas service. Their gas range collects dust while Bozena, 21, cooks their meals on a two-burner hot plate that Karl bought for $3.

And the Liljas can not think of returning to Sweden. Alan probably would be seized at the airport, said Birch-Iensen, "and they will in all likelihood never see him again."

The Liljas only hope is the verdict of the Swedish supreme court, now deciding on Alan's fate.


Return to Main Politics Page

Copyright © 1984 Jacob Young, Joan Westreich, Donna Foote & John Brinkley - All Rights Reserved

Last updated on 6 January 2010