Notwithstanding the agreement reached on Wednesday between India and Norway which puts a temporary lid on the matter, the case of Anurup and Sagarika Bhattacharya — whose young children were placed in foster care by the Child Welfare Services in the Norwegian city of Stavanger — raises disturbing questions. Last year, the couple's children, a boy of three and a girl aged one, were removed to an emergency shelter and then to a foster family, apparently on the grounds that their mother was not in a fit state to bring them up. In fact, the family court annulled the child services' decision to remove the children, but was itself overruled on appeal. Under the current order, the family will not be reunited until the children turn 18 — in 2026 and 2028 respectively. Parental access will consist of three hours' contact a year, in three separate visits. A sense of shock in India is fully understandable over this use of state power in family life. Indian anxieties are also unlikely to be assuaged by Norwegian official statements that such drastic interventions are rare, that the relevant service had visited the family weekly for several months, and that all the required procedures were followed; there is particular scepticism about the Stavanger Child Welfare Services' insistence that cultural prejudice played no role in the process.
The Norwegian authorities say they are bound by confidentiality and will neither confirm nor deny the account the parents have provided of what the child welfare officers found lacking in their treatment of the two children. However, even if their charges go beyond overfeeding, not using cutlery and sleeping in the same bed — “crimes” every South Asian family is guilty of — what seems odd is the extreme and irrevocable nature of the solution proposed. Surely a ‘nanny state' which gives itself the right to send young children to foster care till they turn 18 should also provide counselling and support for those parents whose care is found wanting, establishing a clear and transparent road map for the family to be reunited as soon as possible? If the Bhattacharya siblings are as entitled to a safe, secure and happy childhood as other children in Norway, a logical solution would have been for the grandparents to be offered the chance to take care of them till the parents are sufficiently schooled in the fine art of Norwegian child rearing. For some reason, this option was not considered important, and it is perhaps only because of the Government of India's intervention that Norway has now allowed the children to be placed in the care of an uncle. If this sad story is to have a happy ending, however, the Stavanger authorities should consider inviting a child welfare expert from India or any other South Asian country to review the case-file and help the family resolve whatever problems really exist.