Abuse in Denmark – progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go

In 2005, shockwaves were felt throughout the nation when it was discovered that a father in the region of Southern Denmark had not only been abusing his two young daughters, but also exploiting them by “renting” them out to local men for small amounts of money, alcohol and food. Tøndersagen, or the Tønder Case, was the first of a series of child sexual abuse cases that sparked great public outcry.

At the time, it was the most serious case concerning the sexual abuse of minors and the father was given the highest prison sentence possible, namely 10 years. Many members of the public considered this too lenient and a petition with 30,000 signatures was sent to the Minister of Justice calling for harsher measures. As stated by one individual, “When the daughter is to be punished all her life, so should the father.”

The Tønder case is a resounding example of what can happen when a State fails to intervene. Over the course of eight years, the local municipality received at least 14 different notices concerning suspected child neglect and the authorities held up to 30 meetings on the matter, yet no action was taken. The oldest daughter, Zandra Berthelsen, is now an adult and has since come forward to share her trauma. Apart from describing the severe PTSD and psychosis that still plagues her today, she has also successfully sued the Tønder municipality for compensation because of their failure to protect her.

While her right to compensation doesn’t set a precedent in the Danish judicial courts, because it never went in front of a judge, it still encourages other victims to claim reparations. Furthermore, the Tønder case played a huge role in swaying public opinion. Suddenly, people realised that child abuse could happen in their very own neighborhood, and many have since referred to this particular case when contacting authorities about their misgivings.

Public pressure and general dismay at what had happened to Zandra and her sister helped bring about structural police reform in 2007 as well as new legislation. In 2013 the government passed the ‘Overgrebspakke’ which gave every citizen, particularly teachers, the duty to notify authorities about suspected neglect. Within the space of just three years, the number of reports concerning abuse, neglect and violence quadrupled. This marked a significant shift in the role that both the public and the State play when it comes to protecting and maintaining the health and dignity of Denmark’s children.

This Danish case demonstrates how raising public awareness about child sexual abuse and maltreatment can truly create a shift on a legal and societal level. There are still however significant changes needed to effectively protect children as well as to offer the necessary support to survivors of the past. We therefore need to continue to work to raise public awareness and require change on a legal and political level to ensure the rights of all survivors and protect future children.