“A judicial scandal,” said Children's Ombudsman Fredrik Malmberg to Sveriges Radio (SR).
In its investigation into the practices at facilities operated by Sweden's National Board of Institutional Care (SiS), Swedish public radio discovered 463 cases of children being forced to spend time in isolation cells in the last half of 2008.
The cells, which are cramped and devoid of anything other than plastic floor mats, are only supposed to be used in cases when children are so violent or under the influence of controlled substances that no other measures work. Children are usually placed in the cells wearing nothing but underwear and can be held for up to 24 hours.
According to Swedish law, isolation cells are never supposed to be used as a form of punishment for young people.
But SR's investigation revealed that in practice, solitary confinement is often used to punish children who come into conflict with institution staff.
In one case, a 15-year-old girl was sent to the isolation chamber because she refused to go to her room when instructed to do so by a staff member.
Another 14-year-old girl was put in solitary confinement because she “had language difficulties”.
And a 15-year-old boy was put in an isolation cell for more than 23 hours after calling staff members “racists” and screaming “fuck you”, according to files reviewed by Sveriges Radio.
Lawyers with the Children's Ombudsman who reviewed the files concluded that staff members followed the letter of the law in only a small percentage of the cases.
“When taking into consideration how widespread it is, I think it's fair to view this as a judicial scandal,” Malmberg told SR.
“What is supposed to be an exceptional measure has been used with great frequency and children have been isolated in violation of the law; it's been used as a way to punish the children.”
According to the National Board of Institutional Care's website, most young people staying at the agency's facilities have been placed there without their consent because “they are in danger of injuring themselves or of ruining their lives”.
The board operates nearly 50 facilities around the country where they “look after young people and adults who, in various ways, have ‘gone off the rails'”.
Sveriges Radio's findings prompted the agency's secretary general, Ewa Persson Göransson, to promise an investigation.
In a statement issued on Wednesday following SR's report, Persson Göransson also emphasized that staff at the agency's facilities must continue to have the power to use solitary confinement, but that it should only be used as a safety measure.
“Isolation cannot under any circumstances be used as a punishment or seen as a method of treatment,” she said, adding that SiS plans to upgrade its client documentation system.
“We need to be sure that the authority is used correctly. Therefore we have to have a system which makes it easy to see how institutions use the special powers so that we can discover any shortcomings.”
But Malmberg thinks that the isolation of children ought to be banned completely, something which the United Nation's Committee on the Rights of the Child urged Sweden to implement just last month.
“Isolation shouldn't happen as a matter of principle. The law is very clear on this point. Therefore it's quite remarkable that the youth homes run by the National Board of Institutional Care have had several hundred cases of isolation in half a year,” he said.
“Isolation should be phased out. Isolation is damaging, we know this.”