The Bhattacharya case — which is due to come up for final hearing today — is a particularly tragic one. A marriage arranged long-distance by the parents because both the boy and the girl are “Mangliks.” The couple met just a few days before they married and the wife flew out to Norway with the husband.
Sagarika, the wife, became pregnant shortly after and went back to Kolkata, staying on with her parents for over a year until her baby son was 14 months old. The husband says that the boy Abhigyan started showing “characteristics of autism” very early on but did not receive adequate care in the Chakraborty home.
Whatever the truth of these claims, the fact remains that when Ms Bhattacharya returned to Norway, the child's condition steadily worsened. The natural evolution of his Attachment Disorder coupled with the alienation of his mother, who suddenly found herself without the family support she had enjoyed in Kolkata, was certainly a contributing factor.
The couple sought help through a kindergarten group for families (more like a playgroup) and Abhigyan's lack of development was observed and notified to the Child Welfare Service (CWS).
The CWS got actively involved in February 2011. While the father “understood the problems better” and was willing to change his lifestyle and make himself more available to his family, albeit belatedly, the mother was described as “rigid, uncooperative” and in denial. The CWS decided to remove the children because they considered their continued presence in a house where there was almost constant bickering and shouting as harmful to their development.
Welfare worker steps in
But the CWS showed unbelievable cultural insensitivity, particularly through the clumsy use of an English welfare worker, Michelle Middleton. Her report, which is both rambling and confused, begins with a gratuitous reproach: the father does not own a car and so stays away from home for too long (as if it is his fault that he has to depend on public transport). She also reproaches him for not speaking Norwegian. A little later in the same report she says: The father gets his priorities wrong. He is learning Norwegian and taking driving lessons and so has little time for his family. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. The Bhattacharyas took an extreme and immediate dislike to Ms Middleton whom they described as superior, bossy and contemptuous. Sagarika's poor English and strong Bengali accent appears to have influenced how the Englishwoman judged this middle class Indian couple. The CWS was astounded when this reporter pointed to an obvious colonial disconnect.
The reports are poorly written and presented — the names are often spelt incorrectly showing a lack of respect and rigour. Aishwarya is occasionally spelt as Aiswarya at other times as Asherya.
If the CWS had shown greater sensitivity and taken a less ham-fisted approach it would certainly have obtained better results, averted a massive one-sided media campaign and a diplomatic row. Removing the children through stealth and then hanging on to them by challenging the first verdict of the County Committee for Social Affairs smacks of both hubris and arrogance ( see Chronology ).
The CWS has a mammoth budget of 7.7 billion Nok per year and there is a series of measures it can take to help troubled families. For instance, it could have taken the children into temporary care and sent the mother to a rest home, offered home help or one of a myriad measures at its disposal. The problem is that the CWS prefers taking children away because it tends to believe that it is difficult, long and arduous to help damaged parents who, in turn, are in the process of damaging their own children. Therefore, the CWS argues, it is better for children to be placed in stable foster environments rather than invest time, effort, resources and patience in parents who might never reform. The CWS reads its mandate in an extremely narrow way — that of protecting children and placing their interests above all else, even if desperate parents have to be sacrificed in the process.
The mandatory confidentiality also gives the CWS tremendous power, weakens accountability and obfuscates Norway's famous transparency. No reliable statistics are available on how well or badly children placed in foster care in adulthood. In France, where about 10,000 children are placed in foster homes or state-run institutions away from their parents, statistics show that 34 per cent of them end up as vagrants or tramps. When compared to other western democracies, the number of children taken into care as a proportion of the population in the Scandinavian countries is alarmingly high. In Norway, with a total population of just under five million, placed in care 12,492 children in 2011 as compared to 10,000 by Britain or France, which have populations of roughly 60 million each.
While there is no doubt that an effective child protection agency is needed, and the CWS has done some remarkable work in saving children from parents who were alcoholics, drug addicts, child abusers or paedophiles, it has also damaged hundreds of families through an excess of zeal. True, an appeals process exists in Norway. But it is long and time consuming and by the time the court is ready to hand back the custody to the parents, judges can also take the view that the child, who in the meantime has formed strong bonds in its foster home, had best be left there undisturbed. In its attempts to attain an exemplary ideal, the CWS is accused by its critics of being “inhuman in order to be human.”
The sanctity of the child's biological environment should be preserved except in very exceptional circumstances, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) tells us. The Convention acknowledges that every child has certain basic rights, including the right … to be raised by his or her parents within a family or cultural grouping, and to have a relationship with both parents, even if they are separated. The Convention obliges states to allow parents to exercise their parental responsibilities.
In Norway, the thinking seems to be going in the opposite direction. The Raundalen Commission's report on fostering and childcare has recommended that instead of the biological attachment principle (present in Norway's current legislation through provisions such as: the duty to carry out home based measures; the threshold for takeover of care, parents' visitation rights or the restitution of care after placement) the “development supportive attachment principle” should be given precedence. The child should therefore be placed in an environment that supports his development to the exclusion of all other considerations and the sooner that is done the better.
Health board's observations
Norway's system of accountability and checks and balances ensures that the CWS is under constant scrutiny from the Norwegian Board of Health Supervision. Its latest report published on March 5, 2012 severely criticised the CWS saying that 40 out of Norway's 44 municipalities do a poor job of evaluating help measures extended to families facing difficulties. The follow-up of children placed in foster homes is inadequate and the CWS is unable to prove that fostering gave the children placed in care a better life than the one they would have had with their natural parents.
Norway's own statistical bureau, the SSB, shows that some 42,000 children came into contact with the CWS in some way or the other last year — either for help or because of issues related to their development, well-being, health, abuse or negligence. Of these, 32,900 were “evaluated” by the CWS. Sixty thousand children are born in Norway each year. With a budget of 7.7 billion Krone ($1 roughly equals 5.5 NoK) the CWS took into care 12,492 children in 2011, of whom 8,777 were placed in foster homes. The rest were in dedicated, special needs centres, emergency shelters or other care facilities.
“That figure is far too high for a country with a population of just under five million,” lawyer Magne Brun, who specialises in cases of autism told The Hindu ( see interview, March 22, 2012 ). “Often the care workers or the foster parents do not have sufficient training and they mistake what are possibly genetic disorders for behavioural problems created by the home environment.”
Several respected lawyers, child psychiatrists, and child development specialists severely criticise the way the CWS does its work. Professor Willy-Tore Morch, a specialist in child development at the University of Tromso, has warned that the CWS takes “hasty and coercive measures.”
Lawyer Arne Seland who has broad experience of handling CWS cases said: “The CWS frequently conducts insufficient investigations of the situations that obtain within families before adopting coercive measures.” He believes this is a problem for both children and parents in terms of legal protection and rule of law.
“The CWS has saved more kids than it has harmed. Yet there are individual instances of CWS high-handedness and errors of commission as well as omission. It needs to learn from them. The CWS also needs to study and document variations in child rearing practices in immigrant communities in Norway and what they mean for the welfare of the child. It is not an easy task. Often these variations are just adaptations to a local milieu and a particular geographic zone with no great implications for the health of the child. But equally often they are harmful to the child, such as excision, certain dress codes or long hours of Koranic studies after school hours. At the same time I think there is a lot of wisdom in many of these immigrant communities that the CWS could and perhaps should take on board. Many immigrant women carry a strong oral tradition that they have inherited from their mothers and grandmothers. I believe that a lot of it could also benefit Norwegian mothers. I hope the CWS will in future have the humility to understand this and internalise it,” a former Norwegian welfare officer, now an international civil servant, told The Hindu .
That there is a cultural problem between Barnevarnet (CWS) and the families whose children's welfare it is mandated to ensure is evident from the fact that far more immigrant children get taken into care than Norwegians. Immigrants do not know that slapping or hitting a child is a punishable offence in Norway. Speaking loudly, showing off with expensive cars or having lavish weddings — characteristics shared by many immigrant communities, especially from poor or emerging countries — are frowned upon by Norwegians. Taken in terms of per thousand of population, immigrant communities clearly suffer more at the hands of the CWS: 23 per 1,000 children in foster care are non-immigrant; 35 per 1,000 are children born in Norway to immigrant parents while 51 per 1,000 are the children of first generation immigrants.
Had the Norwegian CWS displayed greater sensitivity, it would certainly have obtained better results, averted a massive
one-sided media campaign and a diplomatic row.