Table of Contents:

Police discretion

Given the aforementioned attention to children’s well-being, it may seem to be a paradox that the children’s situation was rarely highlighted or problematised in the encounter between the families and the police and that the children’s voices are rarely found in the archives. There are undoubtedly several reasons for this. First and foremost, punishing children physically was in practice permitted, although there was no formal legal basis. Some violence (corporal punishment) was permitted. The boundary between legitimate punishment and illegal abuse depended on discretion that, in the first instance, the mothers and the people who knew of the physical punishment had to exercise when deciding whether to report it to the police. The police, however, also exercised discretion in relation to the legitimacy of the punishment, which began already in the police’s encounter with families. It appears, by concepts used in the psychology of deviation, that the officers in these situations assessed whether the punishment had been within a normal range of deviation -that is, a moderate and acceptable deviation that did not require intervention or for which there was no legal basis for intervention - or whether the punishment constituted an extreme deviation - that is, actions that violated applicable norms and that could not be ignored or accepted.55

The practice of the police was very much in accordance with the Danish norms of the time. The population in general supported the right of parents to punish their children physically. A survey from 1949 showed that 62 per cent of respondents supported domestic corporal punishment of children.56 This may contribute to explaining why so few cases of violence against children can be found in the archives - there was simply a certain consensus that some form of physical punishment was socially acceptable. Mothers may also have been reluctant to expose the difficult situation of the children as the municipal social services might become involved. In addition, perhaps the mothers did not expect that the police were able to solve the domestic conflicts. The latter was at least the point of a feature in a women’s magazine from 1980 about a woman who had been a victim of violence:

What do you do [as a mother] to protect your children? Well, the question is probably rather what you can do, alone, isolated, afraid ... Leaving home was maybe something one wanted to do, but where can a woman with small children go? The police to whom I turned a couple of times were not unsympathetic, but what could they do? Arrest the man, put him in a cell for a couple of days, but then what?57

The situation was no better for mothers before 1970 when women’s shelters did not exist. Perhaps the women also found that articulating the children’s difficult circumstances in the home could reflect badly on them - that they would be seen as ‘bad mothers’ who had not been capable of protecting their children. In combination with the practice of the police and the courts, it meant that the well-being of children was not a criminal matter - just as it meant that the child’s voice was rarely heard in cases of domestic dispute.


For decades childhood researchers have been looking for the ‘voice of the child’ in order to highlight children’s subjectivity and agency. Archival material in which children have made themselves heard (e.g. letters written by children) have traditionally been considered particularly valuable, but such sources are a rarity. The archives mainly contain documents created by the authorities as documentation of a specific event and the resultant handling of the case.

In our chapter, we have seen examples of the authorities’ encounter with families in two different centuries and in two different arenas. We focused on cases of corporal punishment of children, where the punishment was in general described by the parents in their encounter with the authorities. Within the home, it was usually the mothers who stated that their husbands had beaten the children. We have also seen that the authorities throughout time and space were reluctant to intervene and apply legal sanctions against those who had used physical force. The legitimacy of the physical punishment depended on whether the authorities perceived the violence as an extreme deviation and a breach of formal regulations. In the school system, punishment was regulated while in the family it was not formally permitted; nonetheless, informal standards and legal practice made some violence both permitted and socially acceptable.

Did we encounter the voices of children in the historical sources? In general, the sources are representations of the authorities. It is therefore important to note that when children - alone or with their parents - encountered official authorities, it was not an encounter between equal parties. It was the parents or authorities who in advance defined that a problem existed that needed to be addressed, e.g. that the child was being abused by a teacher or by a father. It was the authorities too, in particular, who had the power to determine the questions, what not to consider relevant and what was to be recorded in the minutes or case file, thereby effecting how the child’s voice was to be reproduced and presented to posterity.58 What the authorities perceived as an ‘interview’ or just a conversation could, however, in a child’s eyes be perceived as ‘questioning’, which could influence the child’s answers.59 Therefore, it is important to consider how children’s voices were presented within the adult institutional framework and how the archival sources reflect unequal power structures in society.“1 The child’s voice is rarely explicitly recorded in these documents where children’s voices were silenced in the moment of fact creation according to the theorical framework of Michel-Rolph Trouillot. However, if one applies a broader understanding of‘the voice of the child’ one ‘hears’ the children; not just through the retelling of the child’s experiences by adults, but also from the emotional utterances that emerges in the source material.61

The question is whether the archival material can fulfil the expectations that adults today may have when they seek to re-find their childhood with the help of historical sources. Does the ending of silences have a healing effect, as Michael Moss and David Thomas ask in Chapter 1 ? Alas, they will only find information that their parents thought relevant to state and that the authorities thought important to record in the moment of fact creation. They are seldom able directly to re-find their own voice, but in reading the documents they encounter the adults who interpreted their voice at the time. In that way, the voices of children can be heard mediated through the voices of parents and teachers. As noted by Moss and

Thomas in Chapter 1, mediation has its own agency and therefore the voices we hear through the words of teachers and parents may not be the ‘authentic’ voices of the children. However, if we apply a broader view of the concept of voice, as mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, we can hear the child, and the adults gain insight into specific events and experiences in their childhood and youth that they either remember or have suppressed. For some, the encounter with the case file confirms to them that they were overlooked and not listened to as children in the situations in which the authorities were involved.The encounter with the case material may even be a shocking experience as they may risk seeing themselves described in negative terms at a time when the lack of transparency in the administration led to public employees expressing themselves quite frankly in case files and minutes. For others, the case files will contribute as pieces to (re-)finding a past and maybe even understanding the present - to ‘open the drawer’ of memories as Danish anthropologist Stine Gronbæk Jensen has called it.62

The Archives are able to contribute to the journey of citizens when they are trying to find their past. In this context, archivists must expect to deal with the feelings of the citizens when they are trying to find their past and which may be expressed when they read their case files. The role of the Archives may therefore change in the coming years. Not only can archivists help citizens find their case files; they can also, through communication of the historical origin(s) of the case, support the citizen’s journey. In a study of the encounter of a person (who was previously placed in care) with his own records the authors conclude that:‘The lack of knowledge of the creation and form of the records may exacerbate an already difficult encounter with the often harsh descriptions embodied in these records.’63

The Archives can support this encounter between citizen and records by providing information on what the citizen can expect to find - and most importantly may not find - as well as provide insight into why the case file were not always preserved and the kind of views of children that are reflected in the case files over time - so that the history of the citizen becomes part of a shared history. Last, but not least, the increasing demand and expectation that the Archives should act as gatekeepers of the citizens’ history may help both the authorities and the Archives to focus on how to preserve the history of people for present and future generations. The preservation - or the destruction - of the Archives plays an important role when searching for the voices of children in historical records. First after many decades the Archives began the moment of fact assembly, that is collecting and preserving voices from everyday arenas as archivists prioritised preserving documentation of the nation’s political and economic history. Much has therefore been lost by deliberate destruction by the Archives or been discarded by authorities before it could be transferred to the Archives. The future challenge for the authorities and Archives will thus be that they will no longer only have to preserve case files as evidence of public activity or for researchers, in the moment of fact assembly, but to preserve case files that can help citizens (re-)fmd their history and give a voice to their life story.

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