The name of the Norwegian state agency charged with ensuring the welfare of children, Barnevernet, has become well-known far beyond Norway’s borders, for all the wrong reasons. Thorny cases of children taken away from foreign parents have made headlines from India to Lithuania but now the government minister in charge of the embattled agency is coming to its defense, while also promising to take all the complaints against it seriously.
Solveig Horne of the Progress Party wrote in a column in newspaper Aftenposten this week that her ministry is considering some changes in child welfare laws and new lines of responsibility for child welfare cases between the state and local governments. One thing, she wrote, is clear: “All children who live in Norway have a right to care and protection. That’s something we’re proud of, but it’s also demanding.”
It’s especially demanding when various cultures and ethnic backgrounds are involved. Norway has a law against slapping or otherwise physically punishing a child, for example, and that’s not always understood by parents who have moved to Norway from countries where slapping a child is not unusual. After a rash of cases in which children were placed in foster homes, Barnevernet and Norway itself has faced a flood of hostile media coverage in their parents’ home countries.
As Norwegian embassies have been confronted by protesters, Barnevernet has also faced criticism at home, both for failing to act in a child’s best interests and for stepping in and removing a child from a troubled home. This week, a long list of professionals including psychologists, social workers, lawyers and academics launched a petition to call the Parliament’s attention to problems swirling around Barnevernet.
“Society wants to be confident that Barnevernet operates with high professional competence and exercises good judgment … but those of us involved in individual cases unfortunately see another reality all too often,” their petition reads. They continued that there are “many situations when Barnevernet steps in and takes over custody of a child, with its workers tackling this demanding job in the best manner. At the same time we see examples where the agency is viewed as a dysfunctional organization that makes the wrong evaluations with serious consequences.”
Earlier this week, Jan Storø of the University College of Oslo and Akershus called upon Horne to take a more active role in the controversy around Barnevernet. Støro acknowledged that much of the criticism from abroad involves “wild accusations” but other complaints can be legitimate. Through it all, he has missed an active response from the politicians responsible, complaining Horne herself has been much too quiet on the issue, as have Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Svein Harberg, who heads the parliamentary committee in charge of family and culture.
Horne promises that she is indeed looking into the trouble at Barnevernet. “It’s demanding to reach beyond our borders to get out correct information, but we are using resoures and making it a priority to do so,” she claims. “Norwegian authorities have on several occasions spoken up in foreign media to offer information about Barnevernet. We have experienced, though, that interviews are edited and presented incorrectly.”
More resources granted, and a study
Horne noted that more than 4,000 Lithuanians had protested against the negative picture presented of Barnevernet in their country. Information about Barnevernet is also being presented both through her ministry and the foreign ministry, to clarify Norwegian law and parents’ rights.
Horne said the directorate in charge of child and family issues (Bufdir) has been granted more resources to boost competence and help local governments as advisers in specific cases with international aspects. And she has commissioned a study to see whether Barnevernet workers evaluate cases involving Norwegian children differently from those involving children of non-Norwegians. Bufdir, she wrote, is also in the midst of a three-year project aimed at increasing confidence in its operations within immigrant communities in Norway.
“Barnevernet is an agency that attracts both positive and negative coverage in the media,” Horne wrote in her column. “Children have told me that Barnevernet came into their homes too late, others too early. We have challenges within Barnevernet. It’s a complicated picture, but Barnevernet’s work is always based on what’s best for the child.”