Barnavernet, Norway’s powerful Child Welfare Service (CWS) announced in a press statement on Tuesday that it had decided to award the custody of two Indian children taken into care last May to the children’s uncle. This development has been described as a “major breakthrough” by Norwegian social workers critical of Barnavernet and by politicians, like the CPI(M)’s Brinda Karat, who have been lobbying hard to overturn the initial ruling to keep the children with foster parents in Norway until they reached the age of 18 allowing the parents only three visits per year of an hour’s duration each.
But the children's father, Anurup Bhattacharya told The Hindu that the Norwegian authorities had not bothered to inform the parents of this decision. "I heard of this from the media this morning. I then called my lawyer who told me that there had been a press release issued by the Child Welfare Service. Our feeling is that of subdued joy but it is also tinged with sadness at the amount of time that has been lost in our children's lives, and because the children are still not in India.
“Childhood trauma can last a lifetime and our children have been traumatised. Our worry is that they are still not back. There is a hearing later this month and we are just hoping that that will go well. I shall breathe a sigh of real relief only when they are back.
“Also there are many conditions attached — that the custody goes only to my brother and not to any other member in the family. In the eyes of the Norwegian authorities we continue to remain parents who are negligent and incapable of bringing up our children and I would like to clear my name. This is a historic case which will establish something of a precedent. I have been flooded by hundreds of calls and messages," Mr. Bhattacharya said in a telephone interview. He also said that the children's visas have been extended unilaterally by the Norwegian government. The parents too have applied for a visa extension but have received no answer as yet. Their visas expire on March 8, 2012.
Confirming the decision by the CWS, Thomas Borre Olsen, Stavanger Kommune's communications director told The Hindu: “As mentioned in the press release that was sent out today, the talks with the uncle were completed this week. It has been concluded that care of the two children should be awarded to the brother of the children’s father enabling him to take the children back to India. The next step in the process will be to present the proposed solution to the Stavanger District Court, which will take the final decision in the case. The provisional date for the hearing has been set for March 23.”
When asked if the communication from the Child Welfare Service had been lacking with the media receiving only the parents' version of the story, Mr. Olsen said: “We don't see the communication in this case as one-sided. The Child Welfare Service is bound by an obligation of confidentiality, that places restrictions on what can be told to the public.However it has been a goal to provide as updated information as possible within these regulations.”
And yet the custody saga is not completely over. The district court is to hold hearings on March 23, 2012, when it is expected to overturn its own ruling sending the children into care until they become majors. The plight of the parents of the two children aged three and one has generated immense sympathy for the parents and outrage and anger against the agency which has often been depicted as being excessively normative, harsh and a self-propagating bureaucracy which earns those involved in the system a comfortable existence. In a country of a little over 4 million people, over 12,000 children were taken into care last year.
“This is astounding news. Such a speedy review of a case never occurs and is the result of all the diplomatic pressure India has put on Norway. I see lots of cases each year of minority families who have their children taken from them. Families who are bewildered, who do not know their rights and who come from countries where there is no free press and where governments are weak,” said Samy Korir, a journalist and social activist who runs a legal aid bureau. Mr. Korir, who is of Kenyan origin but has lived and worked in Norway for a long time, told The Hindu in a telephonic conversation: “The Norwegian government in no way wishes to harm its relations with India and the pressure brought by the Indian government has yielded results.”
Bhattacharya said, "For the Child Welfare Service this is a face saving device. This way they can prove to the world that the child is going to the father's brother and not to anyone else, especially not to the ‘unfit’ parents! There is no confidentiality clause in the documents which have been given to us and we can release these to show on what flimsy reasons and lies this case was constructed. We won the first court case where the court decided that there was no emergency that justified taking the children to a shelter. Then the CWS put on fresh concocted charges. That is how Barnavernet operates, by fabricating cases and building cases on the basis of lies. I hope other families will benefit from this precedent"
The Indian government has argued that since the parents will be returning to India after the expiry of their visa on March 8, 2012 it is inconceivable that the children should be brought up outside their own cultural and linguistic environment. Retaining the children in Norway after the departure of the parents would amount to de facto kidnapping by the Norwegian authorities, it has been argued.
The child welfare services have held the position that Norway’s laws direct it to protect children who are suffering abuse, ill-treatment or neglect while on Norwegian soil, irrespective of the nationality of the parents or children. The authorities also defended themselves from a charge of de facto kidnap saying: “Extending the residence permit for the children in a case such as this is a practical technicality and does not mean that the Child Welfare Service is seeking to keep the children in Norway for longer than is necessary to arrive at a satisfactory solution to the case.”
“This week, the Child Welfare Service in Stavanger completed its talks with the uncle in the child welfare case concerning two Indian children. It has been concluded that care of the two children should be awarded to the brother of the children’s father enabling him to take the children back to India,” the CWS statement said. In order to process the case the Child Welfare Service has had to apply for an extension to the children’s residence permits, authorities said.
The arrangement proposed requires the Child Welfare Service to ensure that the necessary legal framework and follow-up procedures are in place in order to safeguard the children’s best interests and enable the uncle to deal with the situation in the best possible way. Norway had demanded that the Indian government oversee the development of the two children once they return to India and have asked for guarantees regarding a follow up of the case from India’s special envoy, Secretary (West) Mr. Madhusudan Ganapathi who met with the Minister in charge of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion Audun Lysbakken.