‘We hope to clarify what follow-up measures can be implemented to safeguard the children's health by the middle of March'

As Indian authorities made moves to prevent the Norwegian government from extending the visas of two Indian children placed in care so that they could be retained in Norway even after their parents return to India, officials in Stavanger refused to confirm or deny whether they had indeed sought to extend the visas of the children.

Thomas Bore Olson, the communications Director of the Stavanger Kommune where the children have been placed in care, told The Hindu: “I can only refer you to the press release our office published on the case. The case will be evaluated to ascertain whether the care of the two children can be awarded to the uncle.”

The Sword of Damocles thus continues to hang over the Bhattacharya couple, Sagarika and Anurup, who are still not sure whether their children will in fact be allowed to return to India after they leave. The children are currently in the custody of Barnevernet, the country's controversial Child Welfare Service.

Indian authorities fearing a move afoot to extend the children's visas in order to keep them in Norway after the departure of their parents, lodged a strong protest with the Norwegian government saying the Indian children taken into care for reasons so far kept confidential, were neither orphans nor stateless and enjoyed the protection of the Indian State.

“... The children are neither orphans nor stateless persons, and enjoy the protection of the Indian state and any request for extension of Residence Permit on their behalf should emanate from either the parents or the Indian state,” Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said in New Delhi.

The case of the Bhattacharyas and their two very young children who were taken into care by the Norwegian child welfare agency has caused immense heartbreak and outrage in India not least because the head of the agency, Gunnar Toresen, citing confidentiality, has not revealed the reasons behind the enforced separation.

The parents reportedly said they had received forms seeking their consent to the extension of the children's visas. But now it is alleged that the authorities in Stavanger have decided to go forward with a request for a visa extension.

“The government of India was made aware of the fact that the Norwegian authorities were seeking to extend the Residence Permits of the two young Indian children. It was underlined that India has strong legislative and institutional mechanism to protect the interests of children after their return to India,” Mr. Akbaruddin added.

Mr. Toresen, the head of Barnevernet, the welfare agency, said: “We hope to clarify what follow-up measures can be implemented to safeguard the children's health by the middle of March. We have an open, positive dialogue with the uncle. We have had meetings with him, we have observed the children in their day care centre and have visited them in their foster home.”

The final decision on the fate of the children will be taken by the district court and the court has first to revoke its own order placing the children in care. The future could not be more uncertain for the distraught parents and the children's grandparents, who have demonstrated outside the Norwegian embassy in New Delhi.

“I do not know the details of the case but speaking from experience, since I have worked with child welfare agencies, I can say that decisions to place children in care are not taken lightly here,” Ragnhild Hollekim, a lecturer at the HEMIL Research Centre for Health Promotion, told The Hindu. “The decision to place a child in care is taken after weeks of observation and is always a collegial one.”

However, she did admit that social workers could misunderstand cultural differences and needed to learn more about minority communities, especially since immigration was fast changing Norway's population mix. “In order for the court to order a separation until the children attain adulthood, there must have been several serious reasons underlying this case. Perhaps there should be better communication as to the reasons why the children were taken into care without violating the confidentiality clauses. That would have caused less bewilderment and outrage if the people were told in a sympathetic manner why such a drastic step was necessary,” Ms. Hollekim told The Hindu.

Several complaints have been lodged against Barnevernet (Child Welfare Agency) by parents mainly from ethnic minorities, who claim the agency often imposes its own cultural perceptions seeing the development of children through a mainly white Protestant prism.