1 January 2017
Inger Elisabeth Baunedal, the five "Naustdal children's" aunt:
Norwegian child protection Barnevernet – past expiry date?
There is something wrong with the very foundation which Barnevernet is standing on. I am thinking of their ideas about human beings and their views on the family.
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The Norwegian original of this article was first published in the newspaper Dagen on 3 December 2016, and was also reprinted .
This translation has been made with the author's kind consent.
Translation, including translation of quoted statements: Marianne Haslev Skånland
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It is now a year since I witnessed the actions of Naustdal Barnevern (the child protection agency) in the family of my sister. Drawing a great deal of attention and interest as it did, including demonstrations around the world, the case became a milestone as regards protection of children.
Looking back on this last year, questions arise: Has Naustdal Barnevern become a better instrument for help? Has Naustdal Municipality drawn anything positive from the media turmoil, have they learnt something? Has Barnevernet generally become more functional?
Naustdal Barnevern has been subject to massive criticism over the way they went about things, their treatment of that particular family, my sister's family. A normal reaction would be to repent and think again, to find out whether they made the right decisions.
Perhaps both immediate family and kindred were right in holding Barnevernet to have made a great mistake. Perhaps the reaction of "the whole world" was right. But no – Barnevernet sticks to the opinion that they know better than everyone else. This is called arrogance. The leader of the child protection unit does not dome forward in the media or face her responsibility directly, the way it is usually done in other areas of life.
The municipal administrator Øyvind Bang-Olsen is the one to make statements to the media. He has no deep insight into the case, nor has he spoken to the parents. Despite this, there is one sentence which is repeated in what he says: "Barnevernet in Naustdal has done a good job." After several months the municipal administrator says straight out that "We take no criticism in this case."
When the municipal administrator and Barnevernet have no self-criticism to offer, but are of the opinion that they have done a good job, how then can there be room for improvement? And even if there seems to be no room for improvement, has Naustdal Barnevern nevertheless changed its methods for the better?
It seems not. Right before my sister's family's case came up, Naustdal Barnevern intervened in another family with an emergency decision. The children came back to the family, but later the family lost in court. Instead of keeping the children in the family and helping them, Barnevernet thought the children should not to live with their family. The two siblings were separated, sent to two different foster homes, because Barnevernet thought it best. Earlier this autumn, Naustdal Barnevern made yet another acute decision on a weak basis, but this family was, thank goodness, reunited again after a short time.
I have talked to the concerned families and to others. What seems to be visible, repeatedly, is that Naustdal Barnevern sticks to its methods, which I have to call simply brutal. They make and implement acute decisions made with weak justification, in cases where there is no danger to the children's lives, and they carry out little or nothing in the way of investigation beforehand.
This "instrument of help" separates siblings or plans to do so, with the claim that it is "in the best interest of the child" to be given full attention by being alone.
– I have now just mentioned a few examples, which I am familiar with, of the brutal methods of Naustdal Barnevern this last year.
Regarding Naustdal municipality, there has been a considerable storm of reactions against the evident abuse of power of Barnevernet. Even so, not a word was heard from the mayor or the local politicians. I wondered about this – would none of the politicians elected by the people make an appearance in the media with a wish for a better Barnevern? One lady said to me, "I think all of Naustdal support your sister and the family". We in the family have really experienced the support she spoke of, both from neighbours, family, friends and others we have met in the district.
If a local politician had understood that "this is the right time" and had come forward in the media saying that changes to Barnevernet are wanted, he or she would have drawn great respect and support. I therefore wholeheartedly thank Per Storegjerde, former mayor of Naustdal, for his articles in the papers. After several months the current mayor let himself be heard. He said to the media that he wanted peace and quiet and no more fuss over Barnevernet.
In other words: He sweeps all criticism of Barnevernet under the carpet and does nothing about the problem. At the same time it may be understood that it is not easy for a mayor to go against the municipal administrator, who has said that the municipality has no self-criticism to offer in the matter. It might have been better for the mayor not to say anything at all.
My last question at the start of the article concerned Barnevernet's functionality. The Minister of Children and Equality Solveig Horne wishes to place stronger demands on the competence of employees of Barnevernet. She wants an evaluation of the law relating to child protection with a view to having an updated law suitable to the times. The Minister also speaks of further efforts in psychiatric health in Barnevernet, of strengthening the local Barnevern offices and of better cooperation between Barnevernet and the police.
Somebody put it like this: "Minister for children Solveig Horne is patching up the system." I could not have formulated it any better myself; patching is exactly what springs to mind when I hear the Minister speak and likewise hear what the critics say.
Besides, acute decisions are still being made and put into practice on flimsy grounds, there is still opposition against parents and obstruction to their trying to reunite the family, and so on. In the case of my nephews and nieces as well as in many other cases, psychologists hold that the children are traumatised and scared of their parents. But the truth is that the children are fond of their parents, they long for home and have not been traumatised at home at all.
The methods of the police towards children and parents are also under heavy criticism. There are people who feel that there is no way of being safe under the rule of law in Norway. One couple lost their right to care for their children in the County Board at the beginning of this year. In October they won it back, unanimously, in the County Court. How, then, could they lose in the first place? Rule of law?
Professor of linguistics Marianne Haslev Skånland says about the legislation: "For several years it has been going in the wrong direction, with repeated turning of the screw making parents helpless, depriving them of every right and possibility of keeping their children with them and protecting them".
I should like, here at the end, to say a few words about Barnevernet's future. When I took part in the debate on national television NRK last spring, I said that changes are needed in Barnevernet and in the legislation regulating Barnevernet and the justice system. Now that I see only a "patching up of the child protection system", it is clear that something more is needed to create a better Barnevern. My sister said at one stage, "Where is love?" There is something wrong with the foundations Barnevernet is standing on, something concerning their ideas about human beings and their views on the family.
A healthy child protection system holds the view that a human being has immeasurably great value and should not be violated. The family is what builds society, therefore it must be guarded with all possible means. When I see and hear about the workings of Barnevernet today, how low the threshold is for violating a family through an acute intervention, how easy it is for parents to lose their right to care and how difficult it is to get back children who have been placed in foster homes for some time, then I cannot say that Barnevernet has the right ideas about human beings nor the right understanding of the family.
Judging them like this, I have not even gone into the treatment of parents and children by Barnevernet in acute take-overs. Several Romanian families have been told by Barnevernet: "Here in Norway the state owns the children." This confirms the views of people and families which I can see exist in Barnevernet.
A particular aspect is clear from the case of my sister and her family, something which is found in many other cases too: Children are not allowed to be children with all they say, both facts and fiction. They are held responsible for erroneous things they may say, which are not put right and which therefore have catastrophic consequences. Could it be that Barnevernet is "past its expiry date" and we have to start something new?