The ongoing case in which the Child Protection Services (CPS) in Stavanger, Norway, have placed two Indian children in a foster home raises important questions about not only the judgment of the representatives of a so-called model state, but also their lack of respect for the possibility that many questions around child care and upbringing may not have definitive answers and therefore a moral basis for passing verdicts about the right and wrong of a wide range of parenting practices.
In a column in the leading Norwegian newspaper, Aftenposten , on February 17, Professor Nina Witoszek at University of Oslo brought to light a similarly distressing case involving two Polish children, Tomasz and Maria, also forcibly taken away from their parents and placed in Norwegian foster homes by the CPS in Stavanger. Prof Witoszek has seen the case papers and compares the behaviour of the CPS with a Politburo policing and enforcing strict parenting norms at the expense of emotional support and empathy. This case also illustrates how, under the powerful mandate of the CPS, malign gossip can suffice to prompt the forcible removal of children from their parents.
Deprived of family network
Turning to the case of Avignan and Aishwarya Bhattacharya and their parents, Anurup and Sagarika, there are too many disturbing claims already in the public domain to remain indifferent. Sagarika Bhattacharya, at the time of the CPS intervention in May 2011, cared for the two children, the boy then aged three and the four-month-old daughter, while Anurup was employed in the oil industry in Stavanger. Both parents were deprived of the family networks that under other circumstances they would have been able to mobilise and draw generous support from. Anyone familiar with and sensitive to the struggles of the Bengali or any diaspora, whether portrayed by Jumpa Lahiri, translated on to the screen by Mira Nair or through other literary, academic or cinematic works, would know that South Asians heading for distant shores leave behind and exchange the often remarkable warmth of their native folks for destinations and locals who may come across as reserved, if not outright hostile.
Stavanger, when compared to the buzz, informality and everyday tamasha of an Indian town, is clean, comparatively cold and remarkably uneventful. And one has to be rather unimaginative or just bereft of human experience to not realise that the transition from the familiar to the new and on this occasion very different, carries with it a genuine risk of trauma. Post-natal depressions are common enough in women: add to this the challenges associated with settling down in an unfamiliar culture, the likely social isolation of in particular the mother and you end up with a potential vulnerability that it is hard not to spot. Into this domestic arena of potential vulnerability, then, march the representatives of the omnipotent CPS.
The Norwegian welfare state is reputed to be working exceptionally well for the average Norwegian, including, admirably, families with strongly disabled children. Maternity and paternity leaves are generous and women's position in Norwegian society is hard to match. These are achievements and exemplary arrangements that Norwegians are rightly proud of and taxpayers are happy (and can afford) to pay for.
There is a catch, however, since for modern nomads like myself, the Norwegian state, whenever it is encountered, is not only harder to negotiate but often founded on logic that it is hard to fathom. And not unlike the behaviour of the CPS in Stavanger, this incarnation of the state can be cold, beastly and more often than not, completely incompetent. Such are the rules and they are not unique. Every year, my retired father has to go to the local police station, document his income during the last 12 months, and write a financial guarantee so that he and my mother will have the opportunity to meet their Indo-Norwegian grandchildren. Indian authorities are decades ahead of their Norwegian counterparts when it comes to making life easier for multi-cultural families like ours.
These are issues that the average Norwegian barely reflects upon and may not even be aware of. Yet, it is against this background, which contrasts with the euphoria surrounding the Norwegian welfare state which is promoted, often with a missionary zeal, that the actions of the Child Protection Services in Stavanger belong and need to be examined.
India, far ahead
As a member of an Indo-Norwegian household that on its way from Norway to India had a 10-year stopover in the U.K., for me there is no question about which of these three states suffers from the greatest disconnect to the modern world. This is not surprising. India with all its imperfections and unresolved challenges also with respect to child welfare is, because of its unique experience and history of nation-building, on the path to becoming a successful multicultural enterprise. Britain's colonial history has had the fortunate side effect of nurturing bonds and cross-cultural understanding that have turned out to be a great asset in an increasingly interconnected world. Yet, even there the murder of the black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, in South London in April 1993 necessitated a reality check — a painful, introspective stop followed by the Macpherson inquiry. The verdict: the recognition that the Metropolitan Police Service was ‘institutionally' racist.
There is something deeply offensive about the idea that the Child Protection Services in a town on the Norwegian west coast, unlikely to possess any knowledge about India at all, perceives itself the best judge of the interests of two small children of Indian parents. By commenting on eating and sleeping arrangements, the number of toys, whether the parents may have had an argument (and, yes, melodrama is a facet of Indian family life), the CPS has entered a territory where the prospects for reasoning are endless but the hope of arriving at normatively anchored conclusions, as some of my colleagues would put it, is converging on zero. Even more disturbing is the impression of the sense of superiority and parochial moral authority that permeates the handling of this case, echoing attitudes associated with darker, less civil and, one would have hoped, long bygone times.
Two families with small children arrive at Norway's shores with aspirations, I imagine, of a better life. And how does one of the richest countries in the world treat them? It is hard to think of anything quite as despicable as the humiliation and de facto annihilation of two potentially vulnerable families we are witnessing here. Take a moment to reflect upon what the representatives of our state, the CPS and the courts have done to not only the Bhattacharyas and the Polish family but also our image of ourselves as citizens of a dignified, fair and generous society.
As in the landmark Stephen Lawrence case, there are enough hints of ugly undercurrents to suggest the need for a thorough reality check: an independent inquiry into the mandate and practices of the CPS (say, by Human Rights Watch), a recognition of the need for intense monitoring and scrutiny of the CPS including how cultural diversity in parenting practices and family support systems is respected and handled, the role of the police, the composition of the courts (note that in both these cases, the lower courts threw out the case suggesting there was nothing to answer) and so forth. There is, at the same time, a larger question of how Norway comes to terms with and catches up on developing public institutions that cater not only for pucca Norwegians but have in-built checks and balances that allow for a better handling of multiculturalism and can help to prevent tragedies like these.
(Vegard Iversen is Norwegian, and is a visiting scholar at Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi University)