Norway’s state child welfare agency Barnevernet has once again become a target of international protests, over its attempts to enforce national laws aimed at protecting children. Both the Norwegian agency and top politicians claim they’re listening to the new wave of protests, but are largely fending them off in what they claim are the best interests of the children involved.
The latest protests are being staged mostly outside Norwegian embassies and consulates in Europe and the US. Nearly 20 demonstrations tied to a contested child protection case in Norway are being mounted this month, from Bucharest to Washington DC, largely organized by Romanian and Christian organizations including Assemblies of God International, the Union of Romanian Pentecostal Churches of the US and Canada and several others.
The protesters claim that five children in a Norwegian-Romanian family living in Norway were “abducted” from their parents, who are members of an international Christian organization themselves. Media outlets in Norway, including newsinenglish.no, have received dozens of email from protesters in recent weeks, in what appears to be an organized campaign aimed at drumming up publicity for the demonstrations and support for the children’s parents.
Barnevernet, which operates under strict confidentiality laws, is unable to comment specifically on the case in question. Email demonstrators claim it’s rooted in “baseless allegations” against the children’s Romanian father and Norwegian mother. Norwegian newspaper Dagen has reported that Barnevernet got involved after receiving complaints that the children were being subjected to radical “Christian indoctrination,” later construed as violence and abuse. The parents, charged under a law covering physical abuse in close relationships, reportedly have admitted on Romanian TV to physically punishing their children, knowing it is illegal in Norway, but they claimed their punishments were no worse than what’s allowed in many countries other than Norway. It remains unusual for Barnevernet to remove children from a home, but when it happens, it’s usually because the children are determined to be victims of neglect or physical abuse. The parents and the protesters vigorously deny that’s true in this case.
No violence allowed
In an interview with Solveig Horne, the government minister from the conservative Progress Party who’s responsible for family issues, Norwegian newspaper Dagen reported how she stressed that religious freedom is strong in Norway, but that doesn’t allow violence against children.
“We take criticism seriously,” Horne told Dagen. “I am most concerned that we have a good discussion, though, instead of going down into the trenches.”
While it’s accepted in many countries and religions to physicially punish children into compliance, the practice is not accepted in Norway and Barnevernet is charged with upholding Norwegian law. Now it’s being accused of “kidnapping” children and otherwise tearing families apart. The angry emails being sent to media organizations broadly condemn Barnevernet’s work and demand that both the government and the media “wake up” and pressure the agency into returning the children to their parents.
The emails started arriving in December, many of them phrased in the same way, while another campaign is being carried out on social media. Photos from demonstrations staged in several cities, for example Dublin and Madrid, are also being widely distributed and show similar banners and signs in support of the family, many of them featuring the Norwegian flag. Media outlets in Norway are usually quick to pick up on protests against Norway abroad but have been restrained in this case, perhaps because of the broad consensus in Norway against hitting children. Few if anyone would expect Horne or other state officials to condone it or cave in to the demands until a court has heard the case.
It’s not the first time Norwegian embassies have been used as the target of demonstrations in child custody cases, and Horne has defended Barnevernet before. She also, however, is anxious for Barnevernet to have public confidence and the agency is under near constant scrutiny: “There’s a lot of good work carried out within Norwegian child protective services, but there are also cases where the work is not good enough. We do want to look at where the challenges lie.”
Norwegian officials have also stepped in to protect children in Muslim families where violence has been a problem. Now the Christian community is banding together to defend parents’ rights to discipline their children as they see fit. In one comment sent to newsinenglish.no, a man defended his own father’s “use of the belt” and clearly felt it was within parents’ rights to beat their children when they felt it was necessary. “Nobody has forced us to protest,” another man wrote to Oslo-based newspaper VG. In his opinion, he wrote, Barnevernet is carrying out an assault on the family itself.
Horne stressed that she couldn’t address individual cases, but added that children enjoy widespread rights in Norway, have a right to protection and must be taken care of under terms of Norway’s child welfare law. “There’s nothing in the law to take over care based on religion, but it is forbidden to hit children,” Horne told Dagen. “What happens in the family is no longer a private matter.” Barnevernet has also, she has noted, often been criticized for failing to intervene.
“Religious freedom is strong in Norway,” she added. “At the same time, we must stress that hitting a child, and violence or assaults on children, is forbidden by law in Norway. No one can say that ‘according to my religion, it’s allowed to beat children.’ Under Norwegian law, that’s not allowed.” She has also stressed that efforts to communicate the ban on physical punishment of children to families with immigrant parents are being stepped up.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The name of the family involved in this story has been omitted intentionally, in accordance with Norwegian press policy also aimed at protecting children. We ask that any readers wishing to comment on the story also respect that policy.