Norwegian authorities have separated a 5-year-old from his NRI parents, accusing them of beating the child. The parents deny the charge. The boy has been kept in a Child Welfare Home outside Oslo. This is the third incident of its kind involving Indian parents in the last five years. In 2011, the UPA government intervened after a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old were taken from their parents, Sagarika and Anurup Bhattacharya. A Norwegian court later allowed the children to be reunited with their parents. In December 2012, a Norwegian court sent Anupama Vallabhaneni to jail for 15 months, and her husband, Chandrasekhar, for 18 months, for child abuse. Their children, aged 7 and 2, were sent to their grandparents in Hyderabad.
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What is the Norwegian law on children?
In Norway, a child cannot be physically struck, not even by the parents. Spanking, seen as a way to discipline a child in many cultures, including Indian, is completely illegal, and schools are required to report any suspected incident to the government. Every municipality is required to have an organisation devoted to child welfare protection, which conducts family investigations whenever these concerns are raised. It is called The Barnevernet, or The Child Welfare Service of Norway.
Who can report such incidents?
A “report of concern” to the child welfare service may come from the child itself, another family member, a child health clinic, the Family Counselling Service, the police, a hospital, a school, a day care institution or even a neighbour. All government employees are obliged by law to contact the child welfare service if they are seriously concerned about a child, and the child welfare service is duty bound to assess, within a week, the content of the report regardless of where it comes from. Where there are reasonable grounds to assume that a child is in need of child welfare measures, the service is obliged to institute an investigation. The threshold for instituting investigations is low, to enable the service to identify children in need of help. An investigation, if instituted, aims to assess the child’s care situation and need for ameliorative measures. The service is also obliged to send a response to the person who sent the report of concern.
Does the law apply to foreigners as well?
The Norwegian Child Welfare Act applies to all children in Norway, regardless of their background, religion, nationality or residential status. The Ministry of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion is responsible for the general child welfare policy. Local child welfare services in the municipalities handle child welfare cases. The Ministry cannot intervene, nor instruct the child welfare services in individual child welfare cases.
Why does Norway have such a law?
It has incorporated the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into Norwegian law. The Convention states that the state where the child is present has a duty to protect children in accordance with its laws.
Apart from the three Indian cases, where else has the law been applied?
The most famous case in the recent past has been that of a Romanian father and Norwegian mother, whose five children were taken away, fuelling concern within the country and abroad over its child protection practices. Protesters around the world — and leading Norwegian professionals — say social workers are often too quick to separate children from their families, with too little justification, particularly when parents are immigrants. A case involving a Czech family led to a major diplomatic row between Norway and the Czech Republic. Czech President Milos Zeman accused Norwegian social workers of acting like Nazis — an allegation the Ministry for Children described as absurd and unworthy of comment.
But how common is the practice of separating children from their parents?
In more than 80% of cases where the CWS concludes that some kind of intervention is needed, they offer various kinds of assistance, help or guidance to the parents. In 2014, around 43,000 families got of assistance, help or guidance, while 9,611 children were removed — temporarily or permanently — from the custody of the parents.
According to the Norwegian government, the number of children removed from their parents rose by over 70% between 2008 and 2013 — from 945 to 1,609. The most frequently cited reason for a care order now is “lack of parenting skills”.
Authorities have been proactive in recent years. Why?
Norway has been rocked by several shocking cases of child abuse. In 2014, a 32-year-old Lithuanian man was jailed over the murder of his 8-year-old stepdaughter three years earlier. She was found dead in her mother’s home, a leather belt wound tightly around her neck. In 2005, an 8-year-old boy was beaten to death by his stepfather. The authorities are sensitive to such incidents, and the CWS acts with alacrity.
But these are obviously complicated cases, even if CWS’s intentions are good.
CWS’s intervention has often been denounced as unreasonable, even “kidnapping”. The CWS’s side of the story is not heard because it is prohibited from disclosing the information it has in order to protect both the parents and the child. However, the courts, which get to see all the evidence, have frequently concluded that the CWS acted appropriately. Of course, parents are entitled to due process, including free legal services, the right to be heard and the right to appeal the decision of the Board or District Court. They may also file for revocation of the care order yearly.
So, what’s the middle ground, then?
Simple, according to Norwegian officials: follow Norwegian law. Solveig Horne, the minister in charge of family issues and equality, told a Norwegian newspaper: “There’s nothing in the law to take over care based on religion, but it is forbidden to hit children. What happens in the family is no longer a private matter.”