“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The opening lines of Anna Karenina could easily have been scripted for the Bhattacharyas, whose plight — after a Norwegian court placed their two toddlers in permanent foster care — has generated indignation in India and led to high-level diplomacy between Oslo and New Delhi. The parents have alleged the children's removal stems from a deep cultural bias. The Child Welfare Service in Norway has consistently denied this, saying the children were removed for far serious reasons related to their delayed development. Conscious that the truth may well lie in between, The Hindu asked its Europe correspondent, Vaiju Naravane, to travel to Stavanger to investigate. After reviewing the files and interviewing the family as well as CWS officials, the picture that emerges is a complex one that defies easy pigeonholing. The strains of negotiating a foreign culture and environment are evident — both for the Bhattacharyas and for the Norwegian authorities — but the fact that the family needed assistance is undeniable. The parents have said they themselves approached the kindergarten for help when the older child showed autism-like symptoms, now diagnosed as Attachment Disorder. The mother, too, said she was suffering from post-partum depression and was unable to cope in the Norwegian cold, with a husband who worked long hours.
Though littered with cultural misunderstandings and even insensitivity, all the reports submitted by care personnel working independently of each other saw a problem in the mother's refusal to admit the seriousness of the boy's condition or to accept help. This is largely why the CWS has insisted custody be denied to Mrs Bhattacharya and her family and has sought assurances that the boy will receive the special attention he requires once he is legally handed over to the husband's brother under the terms of a compromise worked out. On its part, the CWS is not without blame. It has shown cultural insensitivity and made serious mistakes in handling the case. The decision to place the children into permanent care contravened Norway's own Child Protection Act which states: “Due account shall also be taken of ensuring continuity in the child's upbringing and of the ethnic, religious cultural and linguistic background.” Foster parenting in Norway would obliterate that “continuity”. As the case heads towards final resolution before a Norwegian court on March 23, it is essential that the emotionalism with which it has been invested be kept aside. Now that both governments are involved, there is no reason why specialists from India cannot also be made a part of the counselling process should the court hearing prove inconclusive.