21 March 2016
We must take our children back
By Jørgen Stueland
The Norwegian original of this article was published in the newspaper on 9 March 2016.
The translation is published here with the author's generous consent.
Translation: Marianne Haslev Skånland
Parents. One of nature's most fantastic creations. The task parents do lies in the genes. Our natural proficiency as parents has been developed through hundreds of thousands of years, through the history of mankind. And before that. Parents are programmed for care. A crying child, a screaming child is evolutionwise adapted to the comforting ability, made to be automatic, of just this child's mother. Its biological mother. A hundred years ago the duty and right of parents to care for their children was self-evident. Nobody questioned the care which parents gave their children.
The way parents and care are considered has been subject to explosiveand galloping change from the early 1900s up to now. Our views of what care is, can be and should be has developed especially with the construction of the welfare state after the war.
The welfare state has had far-reaching consequences for the way Norwegian people understand what it is to be a human being. From the end of the eighteen hundreds, all over Europe, laws and arrangements were gradually introduced whose purpose was to increase welfare for the citizens. People's views on the state, on what the state should be and could be, also gradually changed. In Norway it took the form of legislation concerning children in 1915, legislation providing health insurance in 1909 and 1915, accident insurance for fishermen in 1919. The Ministry of social affairs was established in 1913. The law of old age pension was established in 1936. The state came to be the giver and taker for all of us.
After the war came more laws concerning welfare, culminating in the law of national insurance of 1967. Everybody who lives and works in Norway is through this law a member of the welfare state. A consequence of the way the state saw it as its rightful task to play a part in ever more rights and duties of its citizens was the passing of laws interfering in parents' care for their own children.
Feminism, and a changed view of women, brought increasingly many women to be part of the work force. Since women, too, were to take part in paid work, the state had to find a way of taking care of the children while the women were at work. From the 1970s more and more kindergartens were established.
Hand in hand with the welfare state, the child protection service was established and developed. Before the war and in the fifties and sixties, the state took action especially towards so-called problem children, who were sent to institutions for improvement, such as Bastøy in the Oslo fjord and Lindøy outside Stavanger. These children had no protection under the law, and the practice at the institutions was pure abuse. Anyone conscious of the social debate has also necessarily heard of the sterilisation law of 1934, a law inspired by Nazism, racism and racial hygiene.
The first proper child protection law - law of Barnevern – came in 1953. This law was meant to be first and foremost a preventive law. The parents were still the central provider of care, and the state was only in rare exceptions interfere in the care given by the parents. The parents still "owned" their children.
A new child protection law was passed in 1992. The new law showed clearly the gradual change in the perception of what it is to be parents and children which took place along with the growth of the welfare state. In my opinion, our present child protection law, along with the legal and administrative practice it has led to, imply a radical and harmful break with hundres of thousands of years of parenting. The welfare state gives and takes. It permeates our lives everywhere. It intervenes in our leisure time, in our work, our income, our beliefs, our health, our opinions. And it intrudes in a fundamental way in our being parents.
I hold the State now to own our children. I put it as strongly as this. We have our children on loan. The state monitors us as parents with Argus eyes. If we take a false step as parents, the state as its most drastic reaction takes its children back, and places them with paid representatives for the state, foster parents. The state has its spies everywhere. The family doctor watches. The health nurse watches. The kindergarten watches. The school watches. The after-school-time organisation watches. The school dentist watches. NAV (the work and welfare institution) watches. The sports club watches. Neighbours watch. Relatives watch. And this is fine, you say. It is a fine thing that children who are neglected get help. Yes, it is. But no, it is not.
The whole "Barnevern" system has had an explosive increase in numbers, extent and resources since the law of 1992 was passed. Just look at these figures: According to the national statistical bureau, Statistics Norway, 15,303 reports of worry were sent to Barnevernet in 2003. In 2014 there were 52,996 such reports. In 11 years, that is an increase in the number of reports of worry of 246 per cent (!). In 2009, 3,415 people were employed in Barnevernet. In 2014 5,139 people were employed in Barnevernet. In six years, then, there has been an increase of 50 per cent. Is that because my parents and their generation, I was born in 1971, were perfect parents? Are parents in the year 2014 246 per cent worse than parents in 2003? What is the reason for this huge increase? Oh yes. It is that the welfare state has eaten into our lives. Even into the centre, our family life.
It happens to far too many decent parents today that the dentist reports worry to Barnevernet because their children's dental health is not up to scratch. It happens to too many normal parents that NAV sends a report of worry because one is struggling with a clinical depression. Too many parents find that a report of worry from a revengeful neighbour is taken seriously in the child protection office, and that it leads to an extensive investigation, to one's soul and inner life being turned inside out.
I work on a daily basis with people who function perfectly well as parents, measured by every cultural, historical and evolutionary standard, but who have their lives torn to shreds by child protection workers who judge their parenting with a ruler and a fine-tooth comb. The state's intervention in our lives has in the sector of child protection created a society of informers, a paranoid attitude, and an opinion of what care is, what children are and what parents are, leading to increasingly many tragic lives, mothers and fathers who lose all self-confidence, children torn away from their viological family although there is nothing seriously wrong with their parents.
We must have a debate about this, we must draw out into proper daylight how Barnevernet really operates, we must make the necessary drastic changes. We already have a generation of Barnevern children and Barnevern parents who, with every right, are ready to demand compensation for destroyed lives. Several of them are my despairing clients.