Following extensive media coverage and Indian government intervention, Norway has agreed to release the children of an Indian couple who had been placed in foster care by its child protection agency to their uncle.
The agency, Barnvernet, had seized Sagarika and Anurup Bhattacharya’s two children — three-year-old Abhigyan and one-year-old Aishwarya — in May 2011 on grounds of neglect and abuse, which the couple argued stemmed from cultural prejudice. The couple claimed that Barnvernet objected to the children sleeping in their bed and being fed by hand, which it equated to force-feeding.
Under an agreement between the two countries, Anurup’s brother, Arunabhas Bhattacharya, will be granted custody of the children and allowed to bring them back to Kolkata, where they may be reunited with their parents, who plan to return to India. The arrangement allows Barnvernet the fig-leaf cover that its actions in separating the children from their parents were justified.
For its part, Barnvernet refused to defend its rationale, citing confidentiality, but Gunnar Toresen, head of agency, said in a press release: “I most strongly deny that this case in any way is based on cultural prejudice or misinterpretation..... The Child Welfare Service has a responsibility to intervene if measures in the home are not sufficient to meet a child’s needs.... Examples are when a child is mistreated or subjected to other serious abuses at home, or when there is every probability that the child’s health or development may be seriously harmed because the parents are incapable of taking adequate responsibility for their child.”
However, court records from the municipality of Stavanger detailed by the newspaper Ny Tid, document that the agency intervened because it felt the children had unsuitable clothes and toys, inadequate room to play in the house and because the couple did not have separate beds for the children or a diaper-changing table. The agency also argued that the parents’ feeding the children by hand was tantamount to force feeding and that the mother’s “sudden movements” while breast feeding were risky.
The County Board, which heard an appeal from the parents soon after the children were placed in an emergency shelter in May 2011, was unpersuaded by one of the agency’s central concerns: “During the case, it became clear that the couple does not own a basinette/diaper-changing table. The child’s diapers are being changed on a bed, an arrangement much lower than a traditional Norwegian basinette/diaper-changing table. To this point, there have been no accidents while changing the diapers of the child.”
However, overzealous agency officials appealed the order to a city court, which decided to remove the children from the family and place them in a foster home.
The international exposure in the case has shone an unwelcome light on Norway’s out-of-control nanny state, which has one of the highest proportion of children in protective custody and foster care in the world. Statistics Norway data show that an incredible 3 percent of children under 18 in the country were in the protective custody of Barnvernet in 2010. In all, 49,781 of the country’s nearly 1.1 million children under 18 were receiving protective services, a growth of 62% in the past decade. Nearly a sixth of them (8,073) were in foster care — a 33% growth in a decade. Incredibly, half the 13,727 cases in which children were removed by the agency involved “domestic conditions” as opposed to child abuse.
No doubt, much of what child protective agencies do is both admirable and necessary, but the Bhattacharya case points to the dangerous and tragic consequences of overzealousness and cultural ignorance even in the pursuit of lofty goals.
The County Board of Stavanger got it right the first time when it rejected Barnvernet’s decision to remove the children from the family, noting: “There was no emergency in the home prior to the Child Welfare Services’ first visit in the family home. The problems occurred after representatives from the Child Welfare Services arrived in the home. The mother got scared when it dawned on her that the Child Welfare Services’ might place her children outside of their own home. That was a difficult situation, but the problems of this situation should have been solved in a different and more thought-out way, as opposed to deciding to send the children to an emergency shelter.”