As practice becomes policy; children become risky business

By Emma-Lisa Gångare

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly asserts that delinquent children should be kept out of the law enforcement system, being considered socially vulnerable. Correspondingly, on behalf of the child, the rule of conduct in Sweden has a tradition of providing support and protection from the social authorities. In 2020, this notion became significant as the UN convention went from consented to being fully integrated into the Swedish jurisdiction. However, in contrast, children’s involvement in criminal activities is a growing concern in Swedish public debate. The present situation has put the best interest of the child in conflict with the concerns and the security of the public, and this shift has led policymakers to advocate a more retributive approach against children, advancing the use of law enforcement measures. This more punitive discourse was illustrated in May 2023 as the Swedish government announced a public inquiry on decreasing the age of criminal responsibility from fifteen years down to the age of twelve.

Currently, at the street level of Swedish authorities, local collaborations between workers of the social services and the police are a present feature in the organization on issues of children under the age of criminal responsibility.

‘Children in conflict with the law’ is the central focus of my PhD project. Through this blog, I aim to present empirical findings derived from observations and interviews within a street-level organization involving police investigators and social workers situated in a particularly disadvantaged area of Gothenburg, Sweden. The analytical framework is primarily based on the perspectives of ‘What is the problem represented to be?’ (Bacchi, 2012) and ‘Street-Level Bureaucracy’ (Lipsky, 2010), with the focal point being problem representation through policy enactment. Three guiding premises underpin this framework: first, not to assume that actors always conform to expectations; second, that the actions of street-level public workers will reflect policy as enacted and, consequently the problem as represented; and third, that problem representation as enacted is contingent and subject to variation.

Preliminary findings:

  • On a regular basis, the actors encouraged schools to report delinquent behavior of children under the age of criminal responsibility to the police.
  • Risk factors were the focal point in discussions concerning a child, both in terms of identifying and evaluating potential risks.
  • In most cases, the children reported to the police transpired through the discussion as ‘at risk.’
  • Social workers performed informal ‘debriefings’ together with the police, in which a child and the caregivers were invited to the police office. The focus during these debriefings was to make the child confess to committing the offense and to render the parents accountable for their child’s conduct.

Consequently, by encouraging schools to make police reports, child delinquency was represented as policeable. Through their performance, the actors collectively represented the child itself as the risk (i.e., the problem), rather than as someone in need of protection. Also, their problem representation implied the parents as blameworthy.

Moreover, particularly disadvantaged communities are per se associated with several risk factors. Thus, in such a context, the likelihood of identifying a child who is acting delinquent as a(t) risk is potentially high. With the knowledge that most children do act delinquent at some point during childhood, a majority of the children located in particularly disadvantaged areas may plausibly be identified as policeable. Hence, in such a context, the difficulty may not be identifying children as at risk, but the challenge might rather be to distinguish the children who ‘really’ run the risk of becoming persistent offenders (from the majority of children in these areas who will not) considering those children as protectable rather than policeable. Notwithstanding, the paradox of Wikström and Treiber (2016) becomes appropriate, stating that most persistent offenders come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but most people from disadvantaged backgrounds do not become persistent offenders.


Bacchi, C. (2012). ‘Why study problematization? Making politics visible’. Open Journal of Political Science, 2(1), 1-8.

Lipsky, M. (2010). Street-level bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the individual in public services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Wikström, P-O, and Treiber, K. (2016). ‘Social disadvantage and crime: A criminological puzzle’. American Behavioral Scientist, 60(12), 32–59.

About the author

Photo: Private

Emma-Lisa Gångare is a PhD student at the School of Public administration, university of Gothenburg. She has a master’s degree in criminology, and her research targets how issues concerning children under the age of criminal responsibility are managed at the street-level of the social services and the police. Her project is ethnographic, and she shadows a local and informal collaboration between social workers and police investigators, located in one of Gothenburg’s particularly disadvantaged areas.