By Olav Sylte
By Olav Sylte
Speech at the demonstration outside the Norwegian parliament on 16 April 2016.
Jørgen Stueland is a lawyer and has worked with child protection cases over several years. He is engaged, through articles and debate, in showing the way the Norwegian Barnevernet carries out its activity.
My name is Jørgen Stueland. I am a fanatic and I am a lawyer. Winston Churchill described a fanatic as a person who will not change his mind and will not change subject. That´s me. In cases concerning the Barnevern. I will not, I refuse, I stick to my opinion. And I refuse to change the subject. I will without exception talk about the Barnevern. An unwritten rule for a lawyer is to be polite, calm and factual. However, after having worked with child welfare cases for 15 years, the very idea Child Welfare, the growing mammoth Barnevern with a capital letter B, made me rude, exalted and unprofessional.
What I fight against is a system in possession of methods which lead to all weapons being allowed.
Whilst preparing this speech, I thought: Can you defend your fanaticism? Yes I can. I thought. The way of the Barnevern, the Fylkesnemnd, the courts, the experts, the academically retarded child welfare staff, the way it all has been built up and now like war tanks rolls over and crushes traditional Norwegian families; this system has strong fascist features. And in a way also racial hallmarks. Parents are categorized into upper and lower human beings.
And so I quote Arnulf Øverland’s poem “You must not sleep”. It is a trite poem. Used in all too many situations where it does not fit. However, it does fit in innumerable cases in which I have been practicing as a lawyer. „You must not sit safely at home and say it is a pity, poor things! You must not endure so well the unfairness that does not harm yourself. I cry with the last breath of my voice, you are not allowed to wander around and forget.”
What we must do. It is now about to happen. That which should have happened long ago. There is a growing number coming out from their safe homes. Out to wretches, parents, children. More and more, lawyers, experts, even caseworkers within the Barnevern, increasing numbers from the Parliament, increasing numbers take Øverland’s words in their mouth: They no longer walk around forgetting.
The Barnevern is a true child of the welfare state, the ideology which the welfare state is based upon. Especially after World War II, a welfare state was built up which became all Norwegian’s father. A system was built under which each citizen got his whole life dissected. This state of welfare is in many ways amazing. Cheap healthcare, good hospitals, financial arrangements during unemployment, sickness, disability and retirement.
But the welfare state also created the Barnevern. It has gradually been developed, and culminated in the Child Welfare Act in 1992. Since that time, i.e. in 1992, Barnevernet has gone through an explosive development. According to Statistics Norway there were 15,303 submitted reports of concern to child protection in 2003. In 2014, 52,996 reports of concern were submitted. The percentage increase in the number of reports of concern in eleven years is 246 percent (!). In 2009, 3415 workers were employed in the Barnevern. In 2014 this number had increased to 5139 people in the child welfare system. This is an increase of 50 percent in six years. And is this all because my parents and their generation (I was born in 1971) were perfect parents? Is it true that parents in 2014 are 246 percent worse than parents in 2003? What caused this rapid growth? In fact it is because the welfare state has eaten itself into our lives. Also into our innermost, our family life.
The welfare state now owns our children. We only borrow them. And once an overzealous nurse, a doctor, a hateful neighbor, sends in a message of concern, Barnevernet dissects a family’s life. Ultimately, they take our children back.
So I am a fanatic. I’m fanatically concerned that these conditions have to be corrected. We are in desperate need of new child welfare, with the family in the centre.
I will never stop this fight. For I have found that within the Barnevern there are great, extreme abuses committed every day. Hence, I can not remain silent about what I see. We are going to achieve the change which must come.
by Aage Simonsen
When the authorities take the family’s children, they place the children with fosterparents or in institutions. Foster parents normally receive very good payment, often split up between different sums so that the total does not show: so much compensation for the cost of food and clothing etc for the child, so much over another budget post for additional expenses, so much as straight wages or compensation for having to stay at home instead of having a job, so much for extra holidays away from the foster children, who are then sent off to other relief-fosterers. There are cases in which a foster family has got the CPS to pay for buying them an extra car (and cars are hugely expensive in Norway, mostly because of taxes that go directly to the state) because the foster family kept two foster children, who had to be driven to different kindergartens in the morning – or the CPS has paid for the foster family to build on their house to get an extra room for the foster child. The charges made by institutions for foster children are of course extremely high.
Now what about the children’s real family?
First of all their struggles to keep their children from being taken usually costs a lot. Official Norway pretends this is not so, because the state pays their lawyer when the case is up for the County Committee or the courts. But if a family wants to get legal help when the CPS has started to pester them but before the CPS brings a case formally to the County Committee to obtain a decision saying that the children are now under the CPS, then the family has to pay for this legal assistance themselves.
Then the actions of the CPS are often so stressful for the family that one or both parents cannot manage to keep going in their jobs, so they get ill and have to take sick-leave, not without it also affecting their finances even if they have paid sick-leave for a certain period.
Then: pay up!
Once the CPS has had the transfer of care confirmed and has placed the children wherever they want, §9 of the child protection law comes into play: it gives the municipality the right to demand of the parents that they pay child support.
Such a demand is not supposed to be made if it is „unreasonable”; mostly that probably means if the parents are absolutely destitute. But I certainly know personally of several cases in which the family that has had its children forcibly confiscated, has paid child support to the municipality for several years. Two of them were cases in which one parent held a very modest job and worked hard, while the other parent was disabled. Disablement and low income are much used arguments for taking the children in the first place; so then, in the next round, the parents are made to pay for their children’s upkeep.
The official rationale for this arrangement is that the situation is comparable to that of the parents splitting up, e.g in divorce. Then the parent who does not have the children living with him/her, has to pay towards their living expenses just like the other parent, who lives with the children on a daily basis. So our politicians and our legal establishment have come up with this reasoning that a parent should pay for the children’s upkeep irrespective of whether or not he/she has the pleasure of the children’s presence.
When parents do not live together, it is in the nature of things that the children cannot be in two places at once, although some parents manage to practice almost equal custody in daily life.
The situation regarding children taken by the state is altogether different.
To my mind, the practice of making parents pay the municipality which has thrown them out of their children’s lives, is so indecent that it is impossible not to suspect an underlying motive of punishment. The amount is negligible compared to what is paid out to fosterers, to psychologists and various other experts, although for the parents to pay it may be a struggle.
So getting this money out of the parents is as good as to say, „You good-for-nothings, you were indifferent to your children, you neglected them, you didn’t take care of them, so now we have to. But you are damn well not going to get away with not paying! You are going to suffer in this demeaning way!”
But that kind of parent is very rare. Most parents deprived of the care for their children by the CPS, love their children and would do anything for them. Many of the parents made to pay child support to the municipality in this way even say, „Of course we want to pay for our children. We only hope that they get to know that we contribute.”
The confiscations just serve the child industry. And making parents pay no doubt makes everybody in the public sector feel at ease about it.
Remind us of something?
A true story was once reported in Norway: A young couple living in Eastern Germany in the communist years had long wanted to escape to freedom. When the wife got pregnant, they understood they would have to flee quickly, because once the child was born it would be impossible. So they tried to escape across the border. But they were discovered and the border guards shot at them. The wife was killed, the husband injured and captured.
The husband was imprisoned, and made to do some kind of labour at a very low wage. But even these wages were taken from him, the money went to the state to pay their expenses for the bullets used to shoot him and his wife.
This was the DDR, then.
Another true story concerned a man who had been imprisoned for many years for a killing he had not committed. He had been a suspect, but there had been no proof and the whole police investigation had been quite criticisable.
At long last publicity accomplished a re-opening of the case and he was now found not guilty. Then the state was to pay him due compensation. The state’s lawyer now argued that one should deduct from the compensation a sum for board and lodging in prison. The state had „provided” him with food and a roof over his head and these were expenses which people usually had to cover themselves and he hadn’t had to.
There was considerable consternation at this proposal, and it was not carried any further. But the very fact that a lawyer employed by the state to provide and guard justice could have the stomach to even think of it seems to speak volumes.
The case stems from Norway.
by Marianne Haslev Skånland
This article was originally published in Norwegian in the newspaper Dagbladet on 12 July 2013
It is published here in English by the generous consent of the author.
Translation: Marianne Haslev Skånland
At the time of the publication in Norwegian, the Ministry of child and family affairs was under the leadership of Inga Marte Thorkildsen from the Socialist Left Party (SV).
My experience is not that Barnevernet engages in too few cases. The problem is that they far too often engage in the wrong cases. They take children in cases where it should never have happened.
The Minister of Children and Equality Inga Marte Thorkildsen has been very active regarding the work done by Barnevernet – the child protection service. She wants what is best for children. The question is whether her solutions are the best.
At the general meeting of the party SV earlier this year she said that „Barnevernet must enter into cases earlier”. Barnevernet received increased grants and changes were made in the regulations regarding their work. The biological principle was to have a weaker position. The last proposal from the Minister is that Barnevernet is to take part in negotiations at the Family Offices.
Both proposals imply added responsibility for Barnevernet for the children and to the detriment of the parents.
Earlier, the Minister has come out with strong criticism of the work of Barnevernet. There has been every reason for criticism. Barnevernet has serious challenges in its work and these problems must be solved. The problems in Barnevernet are too serious to be solved with money and new regulations.
The investigation after 22 July showed us that the problems within the police were neither due to rules and regulations nor to a lack of resources. There is no reason to believe that this situation is unique to the police. Barnevernet and the police are the two instances in Norway authorised to employ the strongest kinds of action towards the citizens.
Barnevernet is already licenced to act very quickly. Through emergency decisions they are able to fetch children out of the family directly. The problem does not lie in the regulations. Rather, the competence and proficiency of those at work in Barnevernet and their routines of case handling must be improved.
Emergency decisions were meant to be used in situations of crisis. This has changed, however. Its use has increased to such an extent that emergency decisions are now more common than ordinary decitions of care transfer. The increase is not due to a falling off in the conditions which children live under. It is due to Barnevernet having lowered the threshold. This has happened in spite of a series of examples showing that such decisions have caused irreparable harm to children.
The change in regulations which was made, then, was completely unnecessary in order to be able to intervene earlier. Despite this, a weakening of the biological principle has been chosen. It follows from the biological principle that the clear starting point is that the children are to live with their parents. It is without relevance that somebody else might possibly give better care. The question is whether the parents can give good enough care. Growing up with one’s parents has been considered to have great intrinsic value.
To a great extent, a biological family sticks together throughout life. Foster homes do not. Very many foster children gradually lose contact with the foster family after they have turned 18. They often find themselves alone. They have lost contact both with their biological family and with the foster family.
From 1990 to 2002, Norsk institutt for by- og regionforskning (Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research) followed 100,000 children and youths who were under CPS assistance. The research covered the whole country. The results speak for themselves. NIBR has summarised its conclusions about these children:
1. Three out of four children have received social aid after the age of 18.
2. Higher mortality.
3. More suicides.
4. They miss close relashionships, including when they are grown up.
5. Three out of ten manage well in adult life. 70 per cent of them do not.
An impression has been created in Norway saying that the problem with Barnevernet is that they do too little and that all will be well if the authorities take over. The cases that receive most focus in the media are those in which the CPS has not intervened and the children have had to live with violence and abuse. The stories are often terrible and the passivity of Barnevernet has been impossible to understand.
My experience, though, is not that Barnevernet intervenes in too few cases. The problem is that they far too often intervene in the wrong cases. They take children in cases where it should never have happened. The legal protection of the children is also limited. An arrested criminal has far better legal rights than small children who are without any cause taken away from their parents and are placed with total strangers.
If a criminal is to be held a few hours in detention, this has to be considered by an experienced police lawyer. Within three days the case must be brought before the courts. A little child being acutely placed with strangers may have to wait for several months for a more meticulous check of whether the conditions for this are satisfied.
Now, Inga Marte Thorkildsen wants Barnevernet brought into the negotiations between parents carried out at the Family Offices. This is obligatory negotiation which all parents with children under age have to go through in connection with separation and divorce.
The function of the Family Offices has been unsatisfactory from the start. Barnevernet, however, is not the right instance to call on to make it better. Barnevernet should take care of children in trouble. The Family Office is a place everybody has to attend. Most parents take care of their children in the very best way possible. Their problem is limited to cooperating with each other. This is not a task for Barnevernet.
The reason, among other things, lies in how Barnevernet is constructed. Barnevernet has two sides to it. One is the assistance side. Assistance is given to help the family so that the children can remain in their home. The other side of Barnevernet is the one that takes your children from you. It is usually done by the same case handler who has previously shown nothing but the helping hand. The double role of Barnevernet means that only those forced to it will cooperate with them. Barnevernet brings with it a strong stigma and great insecurity. That is not what we need more of at the Family Offices.
The Family Offices have had a long time to improve their quality. When they have over many years not succeeded, they can not be expected to do so in the future. The only sensible thing is to close them down.
We will not for that matter be without assistance for those who want guided negotiations. Several areas for negotiation have long existed in Norway. In addition to at the Family Offices, many choose arbitration in the primary courts in the court system, the district courts.
The district courts have long had very good facilites for arbitration. One is actually followed up over time and the procedure is administrated by a judge. Access to a professional expert is provided and does not have to be paid for, an expert who can travel to the people concerned, talk to children, adults, school etc. In the district courts’ handling, a better foundation is laid for the parents to come to an agreement, and the results are much better.
Strong forces want to reduce the arbitration possibilities in the district courts, however. The facilities have become so good and so well-known that these cases take up a lot of the capacity of the courts. If the children are really so important, the fact that so many parents choose the best place to negotiate should be considered positive. Instead it is seen as a problem.
It is easy to say that one gives priority to the children. Actual practice is often different. If cases concerning money or real estate were on the increase in the court system, I hardly think we would see pressure to have these cases transferred to special boards or poorly functioning offices.
Child and Equality Minister Inga Marte Thorkildsen has a chance here to show that children are really her focus. She can close down the Family Offices, increase the capacity of the district courts, and improve the quality in Barnevernet.