The child welfare service in the prosperous Nordic country faces accusations of forcibly taking away children from perfectly capable parents.
Norway is tearing families apart. Just ask Natalya Shutakova, and she’ll tell you all about it.
Her son turned ten this October. But she wasn’t able to hug him or give him a present. That’s because all three of her children, aged between seven and eleven years old, have been placed into foster homes and forbidden all contact with their parents.
Natalya and her husband Zignitas Aleksandravicius lost custody of their children this month in a case that has mobilised dozens of angry and aggrieved families against Norway’s child protection agency - Barnevernet.
“Never in my worst nightmare have I thought something like this can happen to me,” says Natalya, who along with her family moved to Oslo last year from the United States. She and her children are US citizens.
Barnevernet is part of the Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs, which oversees the state-funded adoption programme. The directorate exists under the Royal Ministry of Children and Family Affairs.
The family’s ordeal started on the night of May 20 this year when Barnevernet officials backed by police whisked the kids away from their home.
Earlier that day, Natalya’s eldest daughter Brigita, 11, had told teachers that she feared being punished by her parents over a trivial matter related to her lying about lunch that she had hidden in her book bag.
In Norway, public officials including teachers and psychologists are obliged to inform Barnevernet if they feel a child is in danger. They abide by these rules diligently, maybe too diligently some would say.
It’s hard to determine just how severe the concerns that Barnevernet (pronounced Bar-Nay-Var-Na) had about the safety of Natalya’s children were since it doesn’t comment on individual cases.
But a police investigation against Natalya and her husband for alleged child maltreatment was dropped in the absence of any evidence. And Brigita herself recanted, saying in a Tik Tok video that she made up the story.
“I was so angry. I was mad,” she said.
This case is not the first or only time Barnevernet faces criticism for what seems like an overreach of its authority. Children have been removed on the slightest of pretexts and foreigners are particularly vulnerable.
A 19-month-old baby was taken from his mother because he was underweight by 400 grams, an Indian family faced Barnevernet’s wrath after teachers said their four-year-old son was not making eye contact, a father was told he was too dumb to raise his daughter.
More than 12,000 children live in foster homes and specialised institutions in Norway. Many of them having been moved involuntarily. Once in foster care, children only get to see their parents for a few hours a year on supervised visits.
People are encouraged to report if they think a child in the neighbourhood or school needs help. Every year more than 50,000 calls of concern are received by Barnevernet.
“For 11 years I was a good mother in the US and then all of a sudden I am not a good mother just because I don’t fit the Norwegian standard?” says Natalya.
Parents are so incensed with the interference of the Norwegian state that they have started to approach international courts for justice.
Crisis in paradise
The France-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is a sort of a last resort for people who have given up on the local justice system in their own European country and want an international court to hear a plea.
Norway is facing 36 child welfare cases in the ECHR — by far the highest number for any European country, says Laurence Wilkinson, legal counsel for ADF International, a legal advocacy group.
The ECHR also has a Grand Chamber — its highest bench, which takes up only the most critical issues — accepts roughly 10 to 20 from 50,000 petitions filed each year.
In September the Grand Chamber ruled that Norway had violated the family rights of the mother whose three-week-old baby was taken away in 2008 because of doubts about her parenting skills.
“For the Grand Chamber to take an interest in a child welfare case, particularly against Norway which holds itself out internationally as a human rights champion, shows again that the Court is examining the child welfare services very closely,” says Wilkinson.
Norway, one of the world’s wealthiest countries, prides itself on having a social welfare system that looks after children’s health and education and spends billions on assisting parents.
But activists say Barnevernet has been entrusted with too much power and its overworked staff often make bad calls.
For instance, Natalya’s children were taken away under an ‘emergency order’ which allows the child welfare officials to take custody of children without a court ruling.
In 2018, such emergency removals were carried out in 1409 cases, according to the Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs (Bufdir).
Even the first official stage where parents get the chance to press their case raises questions. Known as County Committees, these quasi-courts have a tribunal of three people - a legal expert, who is not necessarily a judge, an ordinary citizen and a Barnevernet-appointed psychologist.
Biological parents almost always lose the case at this stage because the judges tend to side with Barnevernet, says Maurius Reikeras, a lawyer who has represented dozens of families.
“[County Committees] are one of the biggest problems we have because Barnevernet can take children without a court order.”
In its defense, Bufdir's Director of International Services Kristin Ugstad Steinrem said in an emailed response: "The Child Welfare Service will never make an emergency order and place a child outside the home without the parents' consent, if there is no risk that the child will suffer serious harm by remaining at home."
"Therefore, in many such cases, the parents are not warned before the child is moved. The conditions needed to implement such measures are stringent and an Emergency Order must be considered necessary."
The terrible 71
People do get some respite from formal courts, like in the famous case of Marius and Ruth Bodnariu whose five children were taken away in 2015 after authorities suspected they were being indoctrinated with ‘Christian beliefs’. The children were returned a few months later after a court decision.
But for some people, the trials can drag on for what seems an eternity. The family of Yngve Nedrebo, a 65-year-old historian from the city of Bergen, learned this the hard way.
In 2011, Barnevernet took Nedrebo’s four-month-old granddaughter under an emergency care order. “They said my son and his Chinese wife were not capable of raising her because they are mentally retarded.”
Subsequent investigations found that the parents did not suffer from any serious disability. A court even ruled in their favour. But it took more than a year for the case to move from the County Committee to higher courts, and by then Barnevernet had another reason to keep the baby in foster care.
“They said it’s too late and my granddaughter has developed feelings toward foster parents and it won’t be good for her mental health,” says Nedrebo.
Since then Nedrebo, the Director of Archives in Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city, has joined a growing number of activists who say the child welfare system needs an overhaul.
He suspects his family got entangled with Barnevernet because the case officer wasn’t happy that the baby spent the first few months in China - a common practice in many cultures where new mothers look to their families for help after childbirth.
The few case files which are public show plenty of examples where it seems child welfare officials had grossly misinterpreted what’s in a child’s best interest.
Research has shown that the top reason for foster care is not the use of drugs or alcohol or has nothing to do with a toxic environment at home. It’s a vague lack of parental skills that forces Barnevernet to take kids most often.
“I don’t know what lack of parental ability means. It can be anything,” says Reikeras, the lawyer.
On a recent trip to Greece, he saw children playing on the streets at around 11pm and thought, “If this was in Norway, parents who allow their children out on the streets so late will probably be reported to child welfare service for neglecting care.”
Norway was in a diplomatic row with India a few years ago when Barnevernet placed an Indian family’s two infant children into foster care because they thought the mother was incapable of raising them.
To justify their decision, Barnevernet case officers presented observations about incidents common in homes with toddlers. For instance, they said the mother, Sagarika Chakraborty, once raised her hand as if to slap her son when he was spitting food or that the boy banged his head on the floor.
A few years back, Marianne Hasle Skanland, a linguistics professor who has appeared in a few cases as a child language expert, compiled a list of 71 reasons that child welfare services have used to make its case.
- The father has a foot injury and cannot stand on a ladder. Therefore he is not able to clean the top of the window frames.
- The mother is very small. When the daughter grows to become a teenager, the mother will not be able to tackle her.
- The daughter does not like fish-balls. This is a clear sign of incest.
- When the child fell over, the mother just picked her up and put her back on her feet, without comforting her verbally.
- The mother is physically handicapped and does not have the full use of her legs. Therefore she cannot play with the children in the sand-lot or go skiing with them in winter.
All for the state
Resilience, hard work and luck have made the tiny nation of five million Norwegians extremely wealthy. The country exports plenty of oil and petroleum products and its GDP per capita has steadily increased since 1960 to surpass that of the United States and Singapore.
Norwegians continuously rank among the happiest people in the world, enjoying the finest social services a state can offer, raising the question: how can its child welfare system be so seemingly flawed?
“Don’t be fooled by the scenery and the glaciers. We have a serious problem,” says Tor Age Berglid, a former pilot and an anti-Barnevernet campaigner who for years fought a futile battle for custody of his children.
“Norway has a lot of money and by taking a child out of the family it creates jobs for lawyers, psychologists, court system etcetera.”
As a percentage of total employment, Norway has one of the highest number of public sector employees anywhere in the world.
The government spends more than $2 billion each year on child welfare services, which includes payments made to foster parents and foster institutions.
But officials say Barnevernet spends far more resources on helping children living with their biological families than on those in foster care.
“The way Barnevernet is portrayed in international media is problematic, and most of what’s said is misleading,” says Reidar Hjermann, a clinical psychologist who served as Ombudsman for Children from 2004 to 2012.
“I’m critical of its role in some instances, but most of what it does is in the best interest of the child.”
If people working for Barnevernet are concerned about protecting children, it’s not without reason, of course.
In 2005, Christoffer Kihle Gjerstad was beaten to death by his abusive stepfather. The incident was a moment of introspection for Norwegians who wondered how their system could have failed so spectacularly.
Hjermann says Norway’s social welfare system suffers not so much from a bloated workforce as it does from having fewer workers who have too much to do.
There are more than 400 municipalities in Norway, and the smallest one will have at least two Barnevernet employees. “These workers won’t always be an expert in unborn children, infants and guiding parents with a criminal record. In some of the areas Barnevernet’s competency is low,” says Hjermann.
Extreme wealth has almost disintegrated the extended family system in Norway, leaving children vulnerable to neglect in some households, he says. “Grandparents who once used to live right across the street are now vacationing somewhere in Europe. So we need a strong childcare system.”
It’s no wonder that Barnevernet faces the harshest criticism from faith-based groups, such as the Warsaw-based Ordo Iuris Institute, which sees Barnevernet as affecting family life by infringing on the rights of parents.
While there has been debate about bringing reforms to the child welfare system, for now, the people who have seen their children caught up with Barnevernet say they will continue to fight.
“Whenever we deal with Barnevernet we will always bring microphones, we will always make copies, and record the conversations on tape,” says Nedrebo, the director of archives.
“We will take the cases to the human rights courts in Europe where Norway has lost. And it will continue to lose and lose and lose.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include statements from Bufdir's Director of International Services Kristin Ugstad Steinrem. TRT World reached out to Bufdir days before publishing the story and their statements have been added to the text on 11/08/2019.