Interview with Magne Brun, Norwegian human rights lawyer and activist.
Magne Brun is a Norwegian human rights lawyer and activist who has had several run-ins with the country's Child Welfare Service (CWS). He specialises in cases of autism, especially where the CWS has failed to have the child tested and ascribed its difficulties to the home environment. In his chambers next to the court building in downtown Oslo, he helped The Hindu's Vaiju Naravane go through and analyse the 87-page dossier on the two Bhattacharya children removed from their parents home last year and now at the centre of a custody battle between India, which wants the toddlers brought back to the country, and the Norwegian authorities, who insist they remain in foster care in Norway till they turn 18.
The dossier contains a description of the family and its problems and includes reports filed by case workers and psychologists over a five-month period starting November 2010, leading up to May 2011, when the children were taken into care.
What emerges from this chronologically arranged collection of reports?
Don't start with the second part — the CWS' conclusions and arguments after the children were taken. You start with the first part, the on-the-spot reports. One must remember that in law, the immediately recorded testimony is generally considered to be the most accurate. Because if a witness files a second report further on in time, then he or she is bound to have been influenced by his or her own conclusions, what the person has read or heard. So the reports filed later are generally considered less accurate than the immediate on-the-scene reports.
But how does one get clarity through this maze of reports?
So when you have got the general picture and the specifics of the case as seen by the CWS, you go to the arguments as presented to the County Committee on Social Affairs. On the one hand, you have the arguments made by the CWS (the public party) and the parents (the private party) and then finally you turn to the three court decisions to get a sense of the entire case. So you read the arguments of the parents and try to understand why the first court verdict went in their favour and why the second went in the CWS's favour. And if you connect the first verdict to the evidence you have in the first part of the dossier, and you connect the second decision to the second part, you get a picture of what changed and how that was presented to the court.
So what do you see in this case?
In the second half, you see that the case has been strengthened. The documents after the children were taken are more accusatory and more critical of the parents in the interim period — especially from May to November 2011, after the children were taken. The first court verdict: No emergency. Send the children home. CWS decided to appeal that verdict and in order to win that appeal, it strengthened its accusations which one finds in the second half of the document.
What does the CWS claim it did for the parents? What concrete measures did it take or fail to take?
The document says the CWS claims it gave the parents “massive help” and did all in its power to help. But when I see this list on page 13, I want to find out exactly how much help and what kind of help has been given. And this is also the place where language and culture come into play. It is way too difficult for a Norwegian social worker to go into an Indian or Kenyan or Moroccan family than going into a Norwegian family. Because care workers must be aware of the cultural difference between Norwegians and others before they go in, otherwise communication will be impaired and there will be misunderstandings. Parents are threatened — they can lose their children, and parents become defensive and very aggressive toward the child care workers.
Do you see a clear cultural misunderstanding in this case?
The English care worker Mrs Middleton [used by the CWS] had a colonial bias and that is something we see often. That is one thing I have often tried to explain to the courts. The child services see themselves as neutral, transparent, as mere watchers.
They are not anything like that to the parents, who see them as representing authority and a threat. They are seen as evil, difficult to understand, difficult to predict, impossible to trust and when they enter the family arena the family is negatively affected by having them around, filming them, telling how their lives should be organised. So what should be friendly advice and genuine help to a family in distress becomes chaos and catastrophe and increases the family's vulnerability and also its negativism.
Is there anything in the report by Mrs Middleton which shocks you?
Now if I look at the report by Mrs Middleton, the lady the couple disliked, the first comment that I would ask her about: “The family has no car which makes the father spend a lot of time to and from work. This has affected how much time he has been able to prioritise the guidance.” She is implying that it is his fault that he is on the bus to and from work and also that he does not take the family situation seriously. This is an unnecessarily negative and loaded way of describing the situation and it is wrong to put it that way. It does not say anything about priorities. Middleton says: “The father does not understand how important I am.” She appears offended by that and she makes a point of making the father look inadequate in terms of his priorities for the family. I would say the parents do not recognise themselves in how they are presented here.
Where would you say the CWS went wrong in the Bhattacharya case?
The CWS made four essential mistakes. First, it did not extend all the support it could have done. Second, it removed the children by deception, by saying there was an emergency situation when in fact there was no emergency. Third, the CWS refused to accept the first County Committee decision and kept the children in care and did not hand them back. And finally it strengthened their case, aggravated the charges against the parents in order to get the verdict it wanted. At some point the CWS says the “father talks about going back to India. That would be unfortunate.” I suspect the CWS moved in and made it an emergency because it was afraid the family would pack up and go home. Because I cannot see any emergency situation and neither could the court. So this is a clear case of over reach by the CWS.
Are there any other facts that strike you?
Yes, There are other factors too. They started investigating the boy's condition at the hospital and then they stopped. The CWS said it felt his condition was due to the home situation but they really do not know. He is three, he constantly bangs his head and he does not speak. Then it makes remarks that are irrelevant: the fact that he sleeps in his father's bed or that he has too few toys. But obviously the boy has to be reached in a particular way, you have to be able to penetrate and get through to him. And [they say] the problem is with the mother who freaks out the boy. She freaks, starts shouting and then she terrorises him and freaks him out. So when a boy does that, you have to ask yourself why, and you have to look at all the possibilities — genetic or hereditary or a wrong gene or borderline neurological disturbance.
Did the CWS do all that it was supposed to do, medically speaking, in order to get an accurate analysis of the boy's problems?
I don't think so. Because when the CWS came in, it stopped the medical examinations. That strikes me as being strange. A three-year-old child, such behaviour and no language. And there are no signs of qualified abuse — no bruises, no sexual abuse etc. So the harm, the boy brings onto himself. And the CWS theory about why he does that to himself is that the mom lacks affection or fails to connect or understand him. When you are three and you have no language, there are strong indications of a disorder like autism. But that kind of behaviour just from being yelled at or occasionally slapped or locked or even ignored by the mother simply does not add up to 2+2.