Norway’s Barnevernet, established in 1992 to protect children from abusive families, has come under intense scrutiny in recent years for its severe lack of transparency and due process in how officials determine whether to remove children from their homes. The most recent example of breach in justice is the Bodnariu family case, who had their five children taken away for alleged abuse in November 2015. Although the youngest of the children was returned to the parents last month, the decisions made throughout the entire process were done with a startling lack of evidence and a lack of proper due process. This is fundamentally unfair and against the principles of a just and balanced legal system.
According to BBC, a group of 170 psychologists, lawyers and social workers wrote an open letter to Solveig Horne, condemning the Barnevernet as being “dysfunctional” and accusing it of making “far-reaching errors of judgment with serious consequences.” While the organization fulfilled its duties by taking a closer look at the Bodnarius’ parenting style — arguably to ensure that children’s rights, which are heavily protected in Norway — it is evident that at least some of their claims are questionable. Indeed, between 2008 and 2013 there was a spike in the number of children being placed in emergency care, going from approximately 1,000 a year to 1,600, with the most commonly cited reason being a “lack of parenting skills.” Another such example of cultural clashes was the Indian Bhattacharya family, who had their children taken away in 2011, according to New Delhi TV. Court documents later revealed that the Barnevernet officials were concerned for the children’s safety in part because “the arranged marriage between the mother and father which, while common in India, is not largely understood in Norway.” Furthermore, it is important to note that a Norwegian journalist, cited by BBC, found that an immigrant mother is four times as likely to have her children taken away than any other other children. If Barnevernet officials choose to cite cultural differences as being problematic to a child’s upbringing, they must explain how they negatively impact the child, otherwise they should not be in such a powerful position to split families. Given that “lacking parenting skills” is highly subjective, it’s worrying that officials are willing to take such an extreme step on the basis of an ambiguous term that says nothing about the context in which an allegation is made. There also appears to be a disconnect within the Norwegian government itself, as the Barnevernet will act on its own and disregard the findings, or lack thereof, of other agencies, such as its own police force. Over five years ago, the Barnevernet removed two children from a Czech family because one of the kids claimed their father “groped inside their pajamas” according to Vice News. Police forces never pressed charges against the father, but the children still have not been returned to their parents and one of the boys was recently put up for adoption. A comment by a child needs to be addressed, but as the National Child Protection Training Center in the U.S. points out, the context of a child’s statement needs to be examined before any action is taken.
Barnevernet officials are often given wide authority to determine whether suspected abuse qualifies for sanctions, usually with little oversight or right to appeal. For the Bodnariu family, a school principal suspected the parents were spanking their children and subsequently reported the family, according to Vice. Although the Bodnariu parents admits to spanking their children (which is illegal under Norwegian law), Barnevernet officials did not find any physical evidence, marks or injuries, on the children, suggesting that any form of corporal punishment was not nearly enough to cause any damage. While corporal punishment is still a matter of debate, a single suspicion by a single school administrator should not justify such an extreme removal of the children from the family. Furthermore, the medical examinations were done after the children were indefinitely removed from the custody of their parents, not beforehand.This suggests that the officials were willing to split the family and find justification for doing so after the fact, which illustrates a concerning lack of due process. Barnevernet officials should not assume guilty until proven innocent, and the burden of proof for removing children from a family should be transparent and indisputable, which was not the case here.
Removing children from the care of their parents without any prior notice or investigation demonstrates an absence of due process. Furthemore, the Bodnariu family is unable to determine the exact details (outside of the most basic facts) of why their children were removed since Barnevernet documents and courts are private and not revealed to anyone outside the agency. While Barnevernet claims this is to protect the privacy of the children, this also prevents anyone else from reviewing the details for themselves. Barnevernet’s power, therefore, is unchecked and should be more transparent and fair so that more families do not get unnecessarily torn apart.