Diplomatic dispute hits ‘Barnevernet’

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A diplomatic dispute that’s erupted between Norway and Poland is expected to force new debate over Norway’s child protection agency (Barnevernet), which itself has been embroiled in conflicts for years. One foreign policy expert calls the current diplomatic stand-off “spectacular,” and said it can be relevant for all foreign families living in Norway.

Norway’s foreign ministry is caught in a diplomatic conflict with Poland that has left them expelling each other’s diplomats. The dispute seems rooted in how Norway’s child protection agency Barnevernet has removed some Polish children from their families. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The dispute resulted on Monday in Norway expelling Poland’s consul in Oslo, Slawomir Kowalski, and Poland responding by also ordering an unidentified Norwegian diplomat in Warsaw out of the country. Norway’s foreign ministry insists the reason for Kowalski’s expulsion is based entirely on his treatment of Norwegian public officials, which allegedly has involved making threats and resorting to violence.

Kowalski, meanwhile, has actively been involved, on behalf of several Polish parents in Norway, in conflicts with Barnevernet employees.  Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Wednesday that in one case, police ordered Kowalski to leave the city of Hamar after he’d allegedly threatened Barnevernet workers there. Kristin Enstad of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry claims Kowalski’s behaviour “is not in line with his role and status as a diplomat.”

Barnevernet ‘controversial’
Jakub Godzimirski, a senior researcher at Norway’s foreign policy institute NUPI with roots in Poland in himself, told Aftenposten that Kowalski’s job involves handling consular matters that would include complaints from Polish citizens over a Norwegian agency like Barnevernet. Godzimirski pointed out that “on a general basis, Barnevernet is controversial. Many believe it carries out its authority in a controversial manner.”

At issue is how Barnevernet responds to reports it receives from concerned citizens who suspect children are being neglected, beaten or otherwise physically or psychologically abused. It’s illegal in Norway for anyone to physically punish a child, including their own children, and Barnevernet is charged with protecting them. In some cases that has involved removing children from their parents’ homes and placing them in foster homes.

That infuriates many parents in Norway who come from cultures or practice religions where it’s acceptable to spank, hit or otherwise physically punish children. They find themselves in serious conflict with Norwegian authorities and the specific cases and complaints have led to international protests against Norway and Barnevernet in particular.

Polish flags fly outside government buildings in Poland, where officials refused to recall a diplomat in Norway who has challenged Norway’s child protection agency Barnevernet. PHOTO: Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Godzimirski thinks that’s the main problem that led to Kowalski’s expulsion, but the expulsion itself won’t solve the problem. “When he’s expelled, the person disappears,” He told Aftenposten. “The problem does not disappear.”

That’s why he thinks the expulsions should now trigger an expanded discussion about Barnevernet’s methods that can be relevant to all foreigners in Norway. Some, especially from Poland, may opt to leave Norway.

“Political forces in Poland will use this to coax their citizens home,” Godzimirski predicted. “That’s been their wish for a long time.”

He said he was surprised by the expulsions, believing that both countries would seek out a “softer landing” for the conflict. He called the expulsion “a sad chapter in the history between Norway and Poland.”

‘Unusual’ Norway’s recall request was ignored
Geir Ulfstein, a professor of international law at the University of Oslo, was also surprised by the expulsions, but noted that it was “unusual” that Poland’s government did not grant Norway’s initial request that it recall its envoy. Instead, Poland’s foreign ministry claimed Kowalski was doing a good job in Norway, and Polish officials didn’t seem to think he’d done anything wrong in failing to follow police orders or threatening Norwegian public servants.

Since the expulsion reportedly is receiving broad media coverage within Poland, he thinks the government may have felt the public expected to respond in kind by expelling a Norwegian diplomat.

Norwegian human rights lawyer Gro Hillestad Thune is uneasy about how Norway’s foreign ministry handled Kowalski. “Barnevernet and the authorities should question why parents in despair contact embassy personnel and lawyers like me to get help,” Thune told Aftenposten.

‘Serious weakness’ in Norway’s system
She further noted that it’s “a serious weakness” in Norway’s system that there’s no complaints board to which parents, both foreign and Norwegian, can appeal before Barnevernet places their children under acute care that involves removing them from their homes and families. She said many parents have the impression that Barnevernet “misunderstands or misinterprets a situation,” and can then cause offense or act irresponsibly.

“That happens without the parents having anyone who can help them,” she said. County commissions that can function as a complaints board “don’t enter the picture until a child is forcibly removed and placed in an emergency home, often in a dramatic manner with uniformed police present.”

Caritas, a Catholic social welfare organization that has many Polish members in Norway, has offered courses on Norwegian child protection policy. “We know that many Polish families in Norway have found support, and received help, from their consul,” Alexander Golding of Caritas told Aftenposten. “The Polish Embassy (in Oslo) has helped many with these issues. It’s not unusual for an embassy to support their citizens when they face challenges with local authorities.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund