Apologies for years of neglect and abuse in the Danish care system.
Photographs: Christopher Trung Paulsen / Unsplash
Text: Michaela Medveďová / Sara R. Newell
#SigUndskyld, or #SaySorry, is the request for an official apology from the Danish government - an initiative started by Christopher Trung Paulsen, a politician in Slagelse Kommune. But an apology for what? For the neglect and abuse people with disabilities faced if they were placed in special care institutions run by the state from 1933 to 1980.
According to the report published by Danmarks Forsorgs Museum (Denmark's Welfare Museum) in 2022, violence, coercion, sexual assault, abuse, neglect, experimental treatment, and wrong placements were a significant part of the life of children and adults who were placed in Danish special care institutions - and with no intervention from the state.
Despite Denmark's ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1953, the state supervision of special needs institutions was deficient, and injustice, neglect, and abuse were allowed to continue.
As many of the people affected in this period are still alive today, an official apology may help pave the way to healing from these people's traumas.
The website states that approximately 20-30.000 people with disabilities had the right to special assistance to compensate for their disabilities, and about half were placed in special care institutions.
Christopher started planning the #SigUndskyld initiative about a year ago, and the website has been up since February of this year. "For a long time, I had been aware of the injustices people with disabilities faced during the special care period from 1933 to 1980. I was deeply moved by the stories of those who had suffered, and I felt that it was important to take action to acknowledge their pain and seek justice for them," he says.
His interest in this matter stems from his firm belief that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of their physical or mental capabilities. Christopher explains his motivation, "It is unacceptable that so many people with disabilities were subjected to such horrific treatment, and I felt a deep sense of responsibility to do something about it. Some of my friends told me that we should let the past be past, but many people from that period are still alive today, and that's what makes it different."
"I have a strong feeling of justice, probably due to my autism. As a kid, I attended a special education school in an area previously known as 'Andersvænge' (a large state-run special care institution). So I have seen several of those who grew up in the 'særforsorg' or special care institutions and were subjected to horrible treatment."
Christopher got help and feedback from the chairman of the local care museum ("Dansk Forsorgshistorisk Museum") on how he could try to get the government to apologise, "To achieve an official apology from the government, I knew I needed to continue to build momentum and gather support from a broad range of individuals and organisations." The #SigUndskyld website features numerous stories and testimonials of people affected by this time period, and Christopher selected from the historical accounts. In addition, Christopher reached out to individuals and organisations advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. "I selected stories that I felt were representative of the experiences of many individuals. In addition, there has been a historical account of the events during this time, which I also referred to."
A promise of an official apology
The Minister of Social Affairs and Housing, Pernille Rosenkrantz-Theil, has already agreed to issue an official apology on behalf of the Danish government, and the apology was planned to take place at Danmarks Forsorgs Museum on May 8th. However, the minister postponed the apology until after the summer, citing: "a great desire of many to participate in the event."
Christopher was thrilled to hear that the Danish government had agreed to give an official apology - however, he does not see his work as being finished. "Going forward, I will continue to work to ensure that the government follows through on its commitment to apologise and make amends. This is especially important after the government delayed the apology until after the summer."
He says the form of the official apology is still to be determined, but Christopher hopes it will be a meaningful gesture of acknowledgement and remorse from the government. "I believe that an official apology could have a powerful impact on our society today by raising awareness of the injustices that people with disabilities have faced in the past and inspiring greater empathy and understanding for their struggles. I hope it will also serve as a reminder that we must always be vigilant in protecting the rights and dignity of all individuals, regardless of their abilities."