Loading Animation

Cecilie Bjerre


Making Sense of Case Files

By: Cecilie Bjerre

Welcome to our Featured Student Series. This week, Cecilie discusses her work on out-of-home child placements in Denmark in the twentieth century. Please note: details about each photograph are available here. You can also click each photo and it will direct you to the relevant caption record at the bottom.

During the Spring of 2015, I began conducting the archival work for my dissertation on out-of-home placements of children in Denmark from 1905-1975. My main questions concerned administrative practices and out-of-home placements decisions. To investigate these questions, I decided to use, amongst other sources, case files from the period. My well-structured collection scheme soon fell into pieces, because these individual, welfare case files were not at all in the condition that I had anticipated. Even locating files was a struggle. The lack of filing system in the archives tells us quite a bit about the history of out-of-home placements in Denmark. These archival gaps were, as I will show, in part a result of how the social work concerning out-of-home placement was done. Moreover, these archival complications added further pressure to the ethical considerations about using case files in this type of investigation.

Before I take you to the archives and the use of case files, I will give a short background of the history of out-of-home placements in the 20th century in Denmark. When the Child Welfare Act (Børneloven) was first passed in 1905, it constituted the state’s right to (forcibly) remove children from home. Prior to the implementation of the act, children were placed out by poorhouses, informal placements or through private charities. The new legislation followed in the wake of a string of social laws in Denmark, as well as the implementation of Child Welfare Acts in Norway, 1896, and in Sweden, 1902. 

Earlier research states that the out-of-home placement systems in the Nordic countries constituted a so-called ‘Nordic Model’ as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon model of the juvenile court system. In the Nordic countries, the out-of-home placements were administered by municipal boards, called Child Welfare Boards (CWB, Værgeråd, later børneværn), composed of ‘good’ citizens from the city primarily working as volunteers, preferably with special knowledge on children - and (therefore) women were found to be important members. Image 1The CWBs could intervene in cases where children had committed criminal offenses, usually theft, or were deemed immoral, mostly girls and parents, and if they were abused and/or neglected by their parents. The CWBs were dismantled in 1975, and subsequently out-of-home placements had to be approved by the social board of the municipality. 

The 70-year long history of the Danish CWBs is marked by the fact that it was a layman institution and that women were thought to be important since it involved working with families. Differences in doing case work can be identified across different CWBs, but also within the same CWB. The CWBs had markedly different conditions for doing social work according to the size of the municipality and thereby the level of professional backup attributed to the CWBs. Small rural municipalities did not have a Social Office (socialkontor). Removing children from their homes was a rare occurrence in small municipalities. Furthermore, removing children from their homes could be a rare occurrence in the small municipalities. In 1955, only 175 out of 1294 rural municipalities had placed out a child, whereas the capital Copenhagen was responsible for about 40 % of all placements. These wide variations in child placements practices seems causally connected to inconsistent and unreliable record-keeping procedures.

Image 2

Archives and Documents

There are several reasons as to why the case files can be difficult to locate. The case files should in principle be in the local archives, but this is far from always the case. The CWBs were composed by ordinary citizens, and in small municipalities they might even have held the meetings in private homes, because no official offices were provided to them. Hence the case filing and handling sometimes took place in private homes. Were case files lost because they were never handed over to the archives, or were they later discarded by the archives? In addition, one case file can be scattered to different archives: if the family was a so-called ‘nomad family’ different CWBs could have handled the case. All CWBs were supposed to file standard forms to a central institution, but the actual contents of the surviving files vary. Fragments of case files remain in the private archives of the children’s homes and other institutions (and more often than not, children were sent to more than one institution during their placement). Some wardens burned case files, by their own accounts in order to protect the privacy of children as they became adults. Of course, there could be other reasons why wardens would have wanted documents to disappear. For us, the lack of filing, discarding case files in archives and spread of documents in different archives make these case files out to be particularly tricky to interpret historically.

For care leavers trying to better understand their own origins and childhoods, public disregard for the facts of their lives is a compelling problem that must be addressed.

The representative aspect of the preserved case files in the local archives is, to put it mildly, difficult to work out. To make matters worse, the state of the case records does not improve over the early twentieth-century. The case files become even fewer and more fragmented and varied. This came as a surprise to me, because I had expected the case files to become more ‘professional’ further ahead in time, as more professionals became involved with out-of-home placements. In Denmark, social workers entered this field of work relatively late, from the 1960s and onwards, but that did not leave a footprint on how the cases were organized and documented. Unlike the other Nordic countries, there was a central institution comprised by jurists that had the final say in an out-of-home placement case until 1922, when new legislation was passed, and more power was attributed to the local CWBs. The local anchoring of the work with the families and more self-determination may be factors in explaining why the case files became more fragmented in time. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I find it important to discuss the genesis of the case files produced by the members of the CWBs and how that affected the current state in the archives. One should be cautious to make too stark comparisons between cases (why have some been discarded and others not, and which documents are or might be missing?), but it also tells us something about some of the conditions of the social work being performed: overburdened working days with too many cases and too little time to document the work (most of the CWB-members were only involved on the side, since they had regular jobs to attend to), not a very meticulous record-keeping, institutional and administrational backup (or not), and some aspects or procedures were considered worthy to document, others not. 

Ethical considerations

All these reservations make it rather tempting to refrain from using case files as a source altogether: ethical considerations further complicate the situation. There are some legal requirements (in Denmark) that one need to abide by when dealing with documents from archives from less than 75 years ago containing sensitive personal data. Names and other private information must be anonymized. Not everyone has the right to gain full access to these parts of the archives. Researchers have an easier way to access the case files (if they are in the archives, that is!), but care leavers have restricted access to their own files. Most out-of-home placement files contain private information about several persons, which means that if a care leaver seeks access to her/his own file an archivist is required to remove documents with sensitive information about other persons, e.g. family members, and a fee can be charged for this task. This leaves some care leavers with the feeling that the ‘system’ once again works against their interest. Some researchers warn against using these case files as sources for research if the persons involved do not have the same rights to access. There is validity in this response, but I think it is important that historians can investigate on a broad scale how the power bestowed to local authorities on removing children from their homes was administered. And case files are a good entry point into the local, administrative practices. Especially, since this is a legal area with a high level of discretion in the performance of the social work.

The families in the case files

Kristine Alexander reminds us that “…archives are reflections of existing power relationships…”, but the case files themselves are too structured by power. The case files are produced by and exercise the power imbalance between those who wrote them (members of the CWBs, employees in the local administrations, psychologists, social workers etc.), and those who were written about: the families and especially the children.  

The case file was first and foremost a working tool for in-house use (it was not until the 1940s that families achieved some rights regarding access to their own files), and as Chris Brickell has phrased it with the purpose to “keep track of their subjects.” One of the tools for keeping track of out-of-home placed children was to produce standardized forms to describe them and their development. Image 3Yet as Franca Iacovetta and Wendy Mitchinson stress, case files do not merely surveil, they also produce non-standardized documents such as testimonies and letters. We might wonder for whom are these documents retained and to what do they give voice? It seems unlikely that it has been for care leavers who may find it difficult to locate their stories in the case files. 

As I have already mentioned, the state of the case files did not improve in time. The decision-making process was formed by individual discretionary practices. Sometimes a child was interviewed other times not. Sometimes house inspections were carried out and other times not. Not only did practices vary across regions, the rules seemed to be applied unevenly to families within the same locations. I focused upon the process leading to the decision of the removal of the child from home, but also explored tentative home reunifications and choices for education or training. These issues reveal some of the research problems produced by using case files, but also show that case files can help pave the way to a more nuanced understanding of how parents were involved and engaged with the CWBs, even after their child was removed from home.

Case files give access to the maneuvering that was exercised by both the CWBs and parents. Tentative home reunifications were not structured by clear guidelines, and consequently it was a possibility to be interpreted and negotiated. This could prove to be an advantage for parents, since they did not have to fill out endless forms or write long letters, but could simply reach out to the local authorities by telephone or make an appearance. Out of the 225 case files from the period, 99 children returned home at some point during their placement. Some for good, but other children were sent home, just to be placed out soon. One boy came home only to be placed out again six times. 

Parents turning to the local CWB to see their children had significantly better success rate than those who appealed to the central complaints board. One mother turned up at the CWB local office a couple of months after her son had been removed from home on the grounds of several incidents of theft in 1940. He was doing well in his apprenticeship, and the mother wanted him home again. Her proposition was quickly accepted on the condition that the boy was under supervision from the CWB. Without any prior arrangements, she simply showed up at the office and left again knowing her son would soon return home. The decision-making process concerning tentative home reunifications were very informal, and this was instantiated by the lack of standard documents and record keeping procedures. Many meetings or phone calls were only briefly recorded in the files. Conversely, the informality and lack of standards could work against the parents’ ability to negotiate with the CWBs. Firstly, the parents had to know that it was even an option to address the CWBs directly concerning this matter. Secondly, because no formal standards were implemented, it could be almost impossible to decipher how to address the CWB successfully – difficult children were sent home with reference to them being difficult, well-mannered children were sent home because they were well-behaved, and the same with ‘difficult’ or ‘well-behaved’ parents.

One mother tried to convince the CWB to bring home her son by stressing that he longed for his mother. The loving bond between a mother and her son did not seem to be of much importance, but purportedly her 13-year old son was to remain at the children’s home because his weak personality and wild imagination made him vulnerable as an easy prey to gangs.

The mother had indeed consented to the placement, as did the majority. Roughly 10 % opposed placements. In her letter to the CWB asking for her son back, it becomes clear this mother had not been fully informed as to what she had consented. He had been at the children’s home for more than two years, and she had thought that he would only have to stay there for a year. Her son remained under the Child Welfare Service until the age of 19.

The case files render it possible to catch a glimpse of how the social work concerning placed-out children was performed. These practices are not located in official statistics or reports. The CWBS acted at their own discretion because they were authorized to do so. Under a context of ad hocery, the case files should be handled carefully, but they can help to nuance our understanding of the terms under which social work functioned. Their very limitations as sources might help to explain why this is an area of the welfare state that has proven to be almost resistant to political change.

IllustrationsCecile Bjerre


During the inquiry of the Danish children's home, Godhavn, in 2010, researchers discovered the private archive in the basement. 

Rytter, Maria. Godhavnsrapporten, en undersøgelse af klager over overgreb og medicinske forsøg på Drenge- og Skolehjemmet Godhavn samt 18 andre børnehjem i perioden 1945-1976.  Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 2011, p. 110 (Photo: Maja Rytter, Permission granted by Danmarks Forsorgsmuseum).

1. ”Front cover” – Clips from the archives. From the left: Instructions to the CWBs, a letter to a rural CWB, Bryrup-Vinding, and lastly a minute book from the CWB of Odense. (Silkeborg Arkiv and Odense Stadsarkiv).

2. The cover of the journal Barnets Blad (Journal of the Child) from 1940. The journal was published by the Federation of Parents’ Associations in Denmark (De samvirkende forældreforeninger i Danmark), and they fought for bettering parents’ legal rights in out-of-home placement cases and for establishing a juvenile court system in Denmark.

3. A guide to filling out a standard form (this is a template). The standard form was four pages long with questions ranging from the parents’ alcohol use and moral to the child’s character and behavior. (Silkeborg Arkiv).

Reading List

Alexander, Kristine. “Can the Girl Guide Speak?: The Perils and Pleasures of Looking for Children’s Voices in Archival Research”. Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 4, nr. 1 (2012): 132–145.

Bjerre, Cecilie. Når staten er far og mor. Børneværnets anbringelser af børn i Danmark, 1905-1975. PhD Thesis, Institut for Historie/DaWS, University of Southern Denmark, 2019.

Bjerre, Cecilie, Jacob Knage Rasmussen, og Stine Grønbæk Jensen. “Journalens potentialer. Konstruktioner af og møder med journalsager i børneforsorgens regi”. Temp, nr. 14 (2017): 76–94.

Brickell, Chris. “On the Case of Youth: Case Files, Case Studies, and the Social Construction of Adolescence”. The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 6, nr. 1 (2013): 50–80.

Gordon, Linda. Heroes of Their Own Lives, the Politics and History of Family Violence, Boston, 1880-1960. Viking, 1988.

Iacovetta, Franca, og Wendy Mitchinson. “Introduction. Social History and Case Files Research”. On the Case. Explorations in Social History, redigeret af Franca Iacovetta og Wendy Mitchinson, 1–22. University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Musgrove, Nell. The scars remain: a long history of forgotten Australians and children’s institutions. North Melbourne, Vic: Australian Scholarly, 2013.

Rymph, Catherine E. Raising government children: a history of foster care and the American welfare state. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Sköld, Johanna. “After Care: Controlling and Helping Care Leavers in a Community of Foster Care”. The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 8, nr. 1 (2015): 75–93.

Sköld, Johanna, og Kaisa Vehkalahti. “Marginalized Children: Methodological and Ethical Issues in the History of Education and Childhood”. History of Education 45, nr. 4 (3. juli 2016): 403–10.

Steedman, Carolyn. Dust: the archive and cultural history. Encounters. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Vaczy Krag, Jesper, Stine Grønbæk Jensen, og Jacob Knage Rasmussen. På kanten af velfærdsstaten. Anbragte og indlagte i dansk socialforsorg 1933-1980. Syddansk Universitetsforlag, Svendborg Museum, 2015.