By Arne Seland
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.