The curious case of ‘child protection’ in NorwayBy Marianne Haslev Skånland, professor emeritus, Bergen, Norway*************************************
Redd Våre Barn
20 April 2012
This article was first published by in New Delhi on 12 April 2012:. A pdf-version is found in the April-June issue of , pp 16-19. The same issue also contains an interview with the children's parents (pp 12-15) and a White Paper on the case (pp 20-24).Reprinting of "The curious case of ‘child protection’ in Norway" is permitted but should refer to the Pravasi Today publication and to this publication on RVB.
Norway’s actions in the case of the Bhattacharyas – Anurup and Sagarika – in Stavanger, in which two kids were brutally taken from their parents by the Norwegian Child Protection Service (CPS), have rightly infuriated Indians around the world.
There are very many aspects of this case which I recognise from other CPS cases and which are possible starting points for giving the reader a clearer picture of how the CPS acts. The field is a whole labyrinth of interrelated facts mostly so unthinkable that each one should be explained. A very few central examples must suffice for this article.Charges based on cultural bias?
Many comments in Indian newspapers and discussions on the web have been about alleged reasons why these children ‘had to’ be taken away from their parents. Some of the supposedly serious reasons given certainly had to do with Indian culture and habits, like the little boy sleeping in the same bed as his father and the mother feeding him with her hand. This led many Indian commenters to conclude that Norwegian social workers are racist, or culturally or religiously prejudiced. Certainly, social workers are usually prejudiced, but not only on such basis. The reason why foreigners are over-represented among families attacked by the CPS is simply that they are easy to attack. The CPS cooks up ‘serious deficiencies’ and because these ‘child experts’ are supposed to possess deep competence about children, their word for how serious these so-called deficiencies are, fed into the open mouths of naïve judges in court, are eagerly gobbled up. (Jurists have been trained to respect and admire ‘expertise on children’.) Here are some ‘deficiencies’, from actual cases I either know personally or which have been reliably reported in the ordinary press or books. Two cases are from Sweden next door (CPS systems in the Nordic countries work in just the same way). Please keep in mind that these are arguments put forward to justify depriving children of their parents:
- The psychologist registered that the mother could not make an omelet to his satisfaction and she cuts the bread into too thick slices.
- The mother uses too much soap when cleaning. [Reported to the CPS by a 'home helper' who had been instructed by the CPS not to help with practical work but to 'observe' the family.]
- The father is too active, the mother is too passive. [CPS observers are frightening enough to make anybody either, out of sheer nervousness.]
- The mother has made a previous landlord angry because her cats had urinated on the floor. [This had happened several years before her daughter was born, but it was used as proof that the mother did not provide a good environment for her daughter.]
- Clean clothes are not placed in ‘military order’ in the cupboard.
- The child looks eagerly at strangers around it and smiles at them. This means that it is not attached to its mother. [The mother stood talking to some people after visiting the social security office, while the baby in the pram looked eagerly around it. The social security people called up the CPS and the police and the child was taken. The CPS has come up with exactly such a theory in the case of the NRI parents: Sagarika Bhattacharya is presumed not to be attached to her children. One 'proof' of this is that she did not hold the body of her baby close to her during suckling, and that her baby daughter looked at other people and not at the mother. These are well-known CPS 'diagnoses'. If the baby had looked at her mother most of the time, on the other hand, they could have claimed that she had an 'insecure, frightened attachment' to the mother which 'must be broken by taking the child into CPS care' - an argument in their repertoire which is also well-known.]
- The mother suffers from depression so one baby is enough for her to cope with. [The mother had twins and the CPS took one. The family were refugees from the Balkans; they were willing to return to their war-torn homeland with their children but the Norwegian authorities stated that the baby would not be returned to the parents anyway, holding the child protection law to have precedence over the aliens law. Again similar features were found in the case of the Bhattacharyas; in that Sagarika was apparently suffering from post-natal depression.]
- The mother is physically handicapped and does not have full use of her legs. She cannot play with the children in the sand-lot or go skiing with them in winter.
- The parents want to keep the child with them and do not want it to be placed in a foster home. This proves that they cannot cooperate with the CPS in the best interest of the child. [The CPS talks a lot about 'the best interest of the child' and has granted itself the privilege of defining it as 'whatever the CPS and its allied professions and establishments do at any time'. Attempts to even discuss what really is in children's best interest are strongly resisted.]
And so on and so forth. The list is long. More arguments are found in Skanland (2012): .Rules for parenting?
Quite a few comments on the internet have been to the effect that the charges which Mr. and Mrs. Bhattacharya have reported to have been leveled at them cannot be the real ones, since a lot of other people, in Norway too, do the same without being hounded by the CPS. This is sensible reasoning, except for the implicit assumption that the CPS acts according to dependable rules.
Yes, accusations based on cultural intolerance have been directed at the Bhattacharyas, but there is no principle even in that. It is incidental. People in Norway have to obey Norwegian law and some rules emanating from it. But rules can be pulled out into daylight, be discussed and examined. They would be predictable so that parents could learn what was not allowed and be safe from the ravages of the CPS. That would not suit the CPS at all. The lack of real rules leaves them free to invent, invent anything that they can tell the courts is ‘a serious impediment to the child’s health and development’. All the while other families are left in peace. This allows the CPS to say that there are special reasons in the case of just this family, reasons which cannot be revealed. Many people then believe the CPS.
The CPS precisely has no rules. There is of course no rule in Norway that children may not be hand-fed or may not sleep in the beds of their parents, or that there must be such-and-such a table for changing nappies (much safer to change nappies on a low bed anyway), or that they must have so-and-so many standard, bought toys. These are just arguments used by the CPS when they think they can get the children that way. If it suits, they can at any time come up with something else (change the ‘rules’). A CPS report about a young Norwegian mother said something very similar to that which Mrs Bhattacharya was accused of: that the child had hardly any clothes or toys. This mother’s response was to laugh, open the cupboards and show them that there was plenty of both. The next report then said that she was unstable, fixated on material things like toys and clothes, and ignorant of the child’s need for emotional support. Mr Bhattacharya has confirmed that something similar happened in their case when the county social board first decided that the children should be given back to their parents: the CPS appealed the case and brought new accusations.Money and ideology
The Nordic system of CPS payments is unbelievable and out of control. So we have a handicap the moment we try to tell the world about it. The leading Nordic human rights lawyer in the area of CPS and family law (she has had nine cases against Sweden admitted to the European Court of Human Rights and won seven of them) says: “Where such sums of money are advertised, takers will be many.” (Westerberg 1995: ). In one case the sum paid out to a psychologist was Euro 17,000 for a report ‘evaluating’ the family, without the psychologist having talked to the parents. Payments to foster parents are sometimes much higher than the wages they draw from their ordinary jobs at the same time. Some foster parents protest and say the critics lie: “We are being paid nothing like that sum.” Quite. The highest wages are reserved for foster parents who are ‘especially qualified’. Being especially qualified means that you are an ‘expert on children’ such as a social worker, a kindergarten teacher, a school nurse, or have a farm and can keep a horse for foster children to ride on.
The money motive is very visible. Everyone engaged by the CPS is paid handsomely, while CPS victims are squeezed and many even made to pay ‘child support’ to the municipality which has taken their children. But all this could not carry on without an ideology to hide it. The ideology is, as mentioned above, ‘the best interest of the child’ with no particular content ever discussed sensibly and no real life confirmation examined. The CPS favours speculative psychological ideas which have either been disproved, or have no confirmation through research, or are incapable of valid empirical testing. The favourite at present is ‘attachment’ theory, of psycho-analytic origin, with poor research support, cf Sjöberg: “.. current empirical research on Attachment Theory is shown to have yielded only very weak results” (Sjöberg (2006): ). Attachment theorising is of course visible against Mrs Bhattacharya (cf above).Breaking the secrecy
In Washington DC, a Hindu group has asked the Norwegian ambassador to the US to explain to them how our CPS works and they have presented him with a petition to have the Bhattacharya children returned to their family (Lakshman (2012): ). The ambassador predictably denied that children were taken on such grounds as those that have been made public, claiming that there must have been other, confidential reasons.
What reasons? Was Mrs Bhattacharya’s post-natal depression a serious reason why the children were to be deprived of their parents forever? Why were sleeping and feeding arrangements mentioned at all if they were not important? If the boy is autistic, what is the CPS treatment for this? (The CPS tends to believe that autism is due to cold and rejecting parents, again an incorrect theory from psycho-analytic circles.)
The secrecy of the CPS, backed by our courts, is self-serving; it neither serves children nor parents in any of the many CPS cases I have witnessed. It hardly differs from concealments practiced by other sorts of power regimes without open controls.
The action taken by the Indians in Washington is highly commendable. Other sensible Indians around the world might consider bringing similar petitions or protests to the Norwegian embassies there, showing Norway in calm and serious terms that Indian citizens are informed about the CPS and believe justice and humanity are served by revealing, not concealing. It would be a timely warning to Norway that India will keep its eyes open in the future too. The Bhattacharya case is not over before the children are back in India and unfortunately other Indian families, too, may be affected by Norwegian ideas of child protection.References
Narayan Lakshman (2012): “Norwegian envoy to U.S. refutes insinuation by Hindu organisation”, The Hindu: March 1
Lennart Sjöberg (2006): “Adele Johansen vs Norway: A mother fighting for her child”. Stockholm: Foundation for Forensic Psychology / Trondheim: Department of Psychology, Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Marianne Haslev Skanland (2012): “An incomplete list of reasons given by the child protection services of the Nordic countries for depriving children of their parents”
Siv Westerberg (1995/1997): “Foster children as lucrative business”