Støre involved in child welfare case

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Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has taken the unusual move of involving himself in a child welfare case involving a family from India, after it sparked international media coverage over the weekend and allegations of cultural prejudice. Both Støre and officials at Noway’s child protection agency Barnevernet insist no prejudice or misunderstandings are involved.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre was traveling to Myanmar (Burma) this week, but before he left, he tried to help sort out a controversial child welfare case involving an Indian family in Norway. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet

The rights and well-being of children are taken very seriously in Norway, contends Støre, while Barnevernet officials claim they were simply doing their job when they removed two children from their parents’ home in Stavanger last spring. A local family court upheld the authorities’ decision in November and the parents, who have been granted free legal services in Norway, have appealed.

The Norwegian child welfare workers won’t say exactly what prompted them to place the five-month-old girl and her three-year-old brother, both Indian citizens, in a foster home, not least because such family issues are bound by confidentiality rules in Norway. The children’s parents have claimed, though, that their children were taken from them because of cultural misunderstandings, allegedly because they fed the children with their hands and because the boy slept in his father’s bed.

Gunnar Toresen, head of Child Welfare Services in Stavanger, has claimed that no such observations are included in the court ruling that upheld the parents’ loss of custody, and he “most strongly” denies any “cultural prejudice or misinterpretation” (external link) is behind the move to put the children in protective custody. Støre noted, meanwhile, that the children’s removal from their parents was a “rare” move of intervention. Indeed, Norway’s child welfare agency more often faces criticism within the country for failing to remove children soon enough from homes where they’re not believed to be receiving adequate care or are subject to abuse.

‘Media campaign’
The children’s parents and grandparents have vigorously objected to the Norwegian authorities’ decision, launched what the Norwegian authorities call “a media campaign in India,” and took their complaints to the president of India, Pratibha Patil, over the weekend. The case received widespread coverage in India, topped NDTV’s newscasts with the headline “Norway Nightmare” and caught attention in other countries as well.

That prompted Støre to contact India’s Minister for External Affairs, SM Krishna, on Monday. A press release from Norway’s Foreign Ministry stated that the two government officials “discussed the issue” and that Støre “assured Minister Krishna that the Norwegian authorities are working hard to find a solution that is in the best interests of the children involved.” Støre stressed that Child Welfare Services in Stavanger has “firmly denied that this is based in any way on cultural prejudice or misinterpretation.”

The Norwegian ministry reported that Støre and Krishna “agreed that close contact between the competent Norwegian and Indian authorities would be essential for finding a solution.” Barnevernet staff is already “in dialogue” with the Indian Embassy in Oslo and the parents’ lawyer, in the hopes of agreeing on a proposal to be forwarded to the local court in Stavanger for a ruling on the case. Staff at the Indian Embassy was said to have been in “close contact” with the Norwegian government ministries involved and has met twice with the children, their parents and the child welfare officials.

Toresen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that a proposed solution “has been presented to the family and the Indian Embassy. We are awaiting a response.” He wouldn’t comment on its contents. The children’s parents live in Stavanger and have working permission in Norway until March.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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