Child welfare agency under more fire

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Norway’s child welfare agency (Barnevernet) continues to engage in controversial practice that’s led to political problems between Norway and several eastern European countries. Barnevernet has earlier set off protests from other countries including India and Sri Lanka, and it’s now accused of violating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Norway has signed.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Friday that around 3,000 children of non-Norwegian parents are currently in the custody of barnevernet. The reasons can vary from alleged child abuse to neglect but often involve charges of parents physically hitting their children, which is illegal in Norway.

More than cultural differences
The parents often claim cultural differences in raising children but barnevernet nonetheless has placed their children in foster care. Myriad such cases have led to a media storm of protests in such countries as Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Russia.

One government official in Poland told Aftenposten that barnevernet is “the only really difficult issue” in relations between Norway and Poland. In the Czech Republic, barnevernet was recently the subject of a two-hour-long debate within its national assembly. The Czech prime minister asked Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg for help in a concrete case from 2011, before her government took office, but Solberg refused to get involved in individual child welfare cases.

“We have to recognize that the many conflicts arising from barnevernet cases are rooted in more than just cultural differences and a lack of information,” researcher Sanne Hofmann of Norway’s chapter of Save the Children (Redd Barna) told Aftenposten.

Language issue
One of the biggest problems at present is barnevernet’s habit of placing children who’ve been taken away from their parents in foster homes with Norwegian families, instead of moving the children in with families of their own nationality. The practice means many small children quickly lose their native language, because they communicate in Norwegian both at local day care centers and at home with Norwegian foster families.

One woman from Lithuania whose daughter was placed in the care of barnevernet complained to Aftenposten that she no longer could communicate with her during visits. She ended up kidnapping her daughter and taking her back to Lithuania, where they now live in a small town near Palanga. At least 60 other such kidnappings are believed to have taken place over the past decade.

The language issue has led several countries in eastern Europe to claim that Norway is violating the UN convention that obliges barnevernet (and other child welfare agencies of all signatory nations) to have consideration for native language needs when placing children in foster care. Hofman of Save the Children thinks the countries complaining about Norwegian practice have a point.

“Barnevernet doesn’t do enough to find foster homes that match the child’s language, culture and religion,” Hofman told Aftenposten. “If such homes are impossible to find, barnevernet is supposed to compensate for that with classes in the child’s native language and other measures. They have a long way to go in doing that.”

‘Misconceptions’
Fully 40 percent of children now under the care of barnevernet in Oslo have immigrant background, according to statistics gathered by Aftenposten. Only 20 percent of their foster homes are non-Norwegian. The situation has led to extreme claims being made in eastern European media, for example that Norwegian authorities intentionally assume custody of foreign children and place them in Norwegian homes to offset an alleged lack of Norwegian children. Claims bordered on the irrational in some media. Norway’s ambassador to Lithuania, Dag Malmer Halvorsen, said that Lithuanians can’t understand why it’s not possible for barnevernet to find Lithuanian foster homes for Lithuanian children in Norway.

Kai-Morten Terning, a state secretary in the ministry dealing with family issues, said efforts were sincere and ongoing to do so. He claimed it was difficult, though, and that Norway is now trying to attach itself to another international convention that would allow barnevernet to place foster children in a home in their parents’ native land. “This would mean that in child welfare cases where the child has strong ties to another country, foster care could be transferred to another country if it’s in the child’s best interests,” Terning told Aftenposten.

Government Minister Solveig Horne told a group of foreign correspondents in Oslo recently that it’s been difficult for immigrant parents to understand that barnevernet “is there to help them, not just to take their children away.” Horne said there are “many misconceptions” regarding child custody cases, but conceded it is a problem.

She said it has taken “too much time” for Norway to adopt the Hague convention that would allow bilateral agreements for custody agreements in a child’s family’s home country. She stressed that 80 percent of cases involve measures to keep children with their parents and that barnevernet only assumes custody in 20 percent of the cases, also among immigrants in Norway,. Immigrant children nonetheless remain overrepresented in the statistics for foster care.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund