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Norwegian nightmare: State-sponsored child protection racket

Has there been anything more outrageous, cruel and insensitive than the Norway kids case? Dark as a Scandinavian winter, this unbelievable story shows no sign of ending soon. Namita Bhandare writes.

india Updated: Feb 23, 2012 07:35 IST
Namita Bhandare
Namita Bhandare
Hindustan Times
Namita Bhandare,Stavenger,Norway

Has there been anything more outrageous, cruel and insensitive than the Norway kids case? Dark as a Scandinavian winter, this unbelievable story shows no sign of ending soon.

On February 15, three weeks after the ministry of external affairs reached an understanding with the Norwegian government for custody of the minor Indian children, currently in separate foster homes, to be handed over to their paternal uncle, the ministry summoned Norway’s ambassador to India to express its concern about the delay in handing over the children.

In Norway, the parents this past week had an hour-long supervised visit with their children. The uncle, a Kolkata-based dentist is already in Norway, staying in a hotel, meeting with welfare officials and psychologists, presumably to ensure that he’ll be a fit guardian. He has been warned by Child Protection Services (CPS) to not make any contact with the parents.

Despite these efforts, there is no guarantee that the hand-over will take place soon. “We have to evaluate whether care of the two Indian children who have been placed in a Norwegian foster home can be awarded to the brother of the children’s father,” CPS head Gunnar Toresen said in a statement. But the childrens’ visa runs out on May 1 and the uncle is keen to return home with them before then.

The Indian family’s nightmare beganin May last year when it was investigated by CPS. Welfare officials interviewed the family of the Indian geophysicist who works in a multinational firm to find that the four-year-son was fed by hand by his mother, did not have appropriate toys and slept in his father’s bed. There was no diaper changing table for the baby and when she was breast fed, the mother cradled only her head and not whole body.

CPS saw this as evidence of an ‘emotional disconnect’ and placed the children in an emergency shelter before eventually placing them in two separate foster homes, to be reunited with their parents only when they turn 18. Until then the parents can see them thrice a year for an hour each.

CPS has never publicly stated the case against the parents with Toresen only saying that the children ‘needed more’ than they were getting.

More? What exactly? Are toys, a diaper changing table, cutlery more important than the emotional bond that the parents can best provide? Do a paucity of these warrant a forcible abduction? Can any humane person, let alone a state, argue that this is enough to justify yanking these children from their roots and replanting them within the needs of a substitute ‘family’ that is paid handsomely to provide them the ‘more’ that CPS believes they need?

Certainly there is the suspicion that there has been a complete cultural disconnect. Indian mothers routinely hand feed their young children, Indian children just as routinely sleep with their parents. If a mother’s holding of her baby daughter while breast feeding her is seen as sign of an emotional disconnect or the fact that she feeds her little boy by hand and not cutlery is evidence that the child is being force-fed, then what should Indians make of the fact that Norwegian children sleep apart from their parents? Should Indian authorities take to barging into Norwegian expat homes, taking away their children because of what we define as abuse?

Assume for a minute that CPS acted out of what it sees as the children’s best interests, why did it not then offer counselling or remedial classes to the parents? Why did it not attempt to place the children within the parents’ larger, extended family? Why did it worsen the children’s trauma by placing them in separate foster homes, disconnected from each other, their language, culture and religion? Why did CPS refuse to even reply to four different letters written to it by the parents? And what kind of shameless arrogance even now leads it to drag its feet in finding the fastest possible resolution?

Perhaps it is not arrogance but something more sinister.

CPS “in order to have work, want children and they attack anybody who is vulnerable,” says Marianne Haslev Skanland, a professor emeritus in Bergen, Norway on her website. Last year, according to Norway’s Statistics Bureau, as many as 12,492 children received ‘placement measures’; between 2004 and 2010, as many as 19 out of 1,000 children born to immigrant parents were taken away from their families. CPS budgets have also correspondingly gone up. In 2010 it spent 7.7 billion NOK (krone), up from 930 million of the previous year.

Skanland talks of the child protection ‘industry’ in her native Norway. “It is an industry, which pays incredible amounts to psychologists for ‘reports’ and to foster ‘parents’,” she says. Foster parents are paid nearly 50,000 euros a year per child along with paid holidays, regular time-off and allowances for buying cars or improving homes.

SPORTS LEGEND NOT SPARED: Former Moroccan Olympic champion Khalid Skah shows a document during his news conference in Rabat on August 5, 2009. A child custody battle between Skah and his estranged Norwegian wife has strained diplomatic ties after Morocco said Norway helped spirit the two children away from their father. Reuters/Rafael Marchante

Recently, CPS’ ham-handed snatching efforts received a fair amount of criticism within Norway after it was revealed that the foster father where it had placed two young Turkish boys was, in fact, a sex offender. Two foster daughters had complained about sexual abuse from him but were ignored until the foster father himself pleaded guilty to child pornography and child sexual abuse.

Norway’s prosperity – including the apparently limitless funds it devotes to child ‘protection’ – stems from the development of its oil industry. It’s an industry that has encouraged, even depended on immigration, ending years of homogeneous insularity but revealing also a darker, racist side. Writing for The Afternoon Post in July last year, the country’s head of the Directorate of Immigration, Ida Borrensen said, ‘those with very different cultures from ours should be restricted’. A recent poll found that at least half those surveyed favoured restricting immigration. And at least one Norwegian High School found merit in seating children according to ethnicity.

Despite a falling birth rate among ethnic Norwegians, population has grown, fuelled by immigration from Southern Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. Islam today is Norway’s second-most prevalent religion that is practiced. And this growth has coincided with increasing White Supremacy and a growing intolerance of Islam, a growth that has seen the rise of parties like Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom that cuts its teeth on Islamophobic rhetoric. In the aftermath of last year’s tragic massacre by a right-wing, anti-Islam fanatic, Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead, questions were raised in Norway itself: Was Breivik just one bad apple or was he a part of a growing European malaise of intolerance and racism.

That answer might just be hinted at in the manner in which CPS has conducted itself in the Norway kids’ case. There is only way to end this sorry story: Immediate reunification of the family. Norway’s intrusive nanny state may be of concern to its citizens. It is for its citizens to press, or not, for reforms and restoration, or not, of the sanctity of family.

But the abduction of the children of Indian citizens is a matter that concerns us. The children might never recover from their trauma, the parents might forever be cautious about being judged in their relationship with their children. We do not know the extent to which these children might have been brainwashed, the suitability of their foster ‘parents or even whether they will remember their parents. These are larger questions that will be answered at a future date. But for now, there is only one priority: Bring these children back home.

How Indian media covered the case:

The iron hand that rocks the cradle

It's a child's play for us

Norway is guilty of violating law which has global sanctity

Norway can learn from Oprah’s visit to India

First Published: Feb 21, 2012 11:19 IST