For a society such as Norway’s, public trust in the state is a cornerstone. But what happens when that trust is lacking?
In several cases over the past year, the involvement of Norway’s Child Protection Service (“Barnevernet”) with families of immigrant background has been the subject of heated debate. The rights and wrongs of Barnevernet’s actions in individual cases are impossible for the general public to evaluate on the basis of media reports. For very good reasons, Barnevernet is subject to a duty of confidentiality in the child’s best interests. Despite an intense desire for more information, we must respect this confidentiality. But this respect is conditional on the existence of public trust in Barnevernet among the population at large – including among people of immigrant background.
This autumn, Polish people in Norway, as well as in Poland and in other countries, were able to view two documentaries made in 2012 about child protection in Norway. The documentaries included interviews with Polish families in Norway who had had bad experiences with Barnevernet and its working methods. There was a focus on the families’ lack of legal safeguards in the face of Barnevernet’s allegedly high-handed and arbitrary actions. The parents felt as though they lacked any legal rights against a state that had deprived them of what was most precious to them – their children. The extent to which there were grounds for Barnevernet to intervene in any specific case is beyond the scope of this article. Rather the article’s point is that among Polish immigrants in Norway the prevailing view of Barnevernet is one of scepticism and fear. In discussions both amongst Poles in Norway and with their relatives and friends in Poland and other countries, the predominating view of Barnevernet is that of an organisation that has no respect for the family, and that is almost above the law. At the same time there is little in the public debate in Norway that helps balance such a view of Barnevernet, even though the heated debate about Barnevernet’s role and position is far from confined to immigrant circles.
I have interviewed 75 persons from Norwegian-Pakistani and Polish backgrounds over the past year in connection with a research project, and the topic of child protection has been spontaneously introduced by several interviewees. My research project is about the attitudes of immigrants and their children towards their country of residence, and how they view the possibility of at some point moving back to their own or their parents’ country of origin. In other words, the project has absolutely nothing to do with children or child neglect. Nevertheless, the topic was raised. Given the media attention devoted to child protection cases involving immigrant families over the past year, this is perhaps unsurprising. At the same time, I think it is surprising that someone, in a discussion about life in Norway, would choose to raise the topic of child protection. I have no doubt that there is a basic lack of trust in Barnevernet as an institution among the people I have interviewed. In fact, there is a deep mistrust: when we spoke further about their experiences of life in Norway, the interviewees continually raised new issues concerning legal safeguards for parents, for example in relation to exchanges of information between kindergartens, public health centres, school psychology services and Barnevernet. The focus of the discussion was either on legal safeguards and possibilities for appealing official decisions, or quite simply on fear and disempowerment.
Most immigrants in Norway work and pay their taxes as law-abiding citizens. But many of those I have spoken to do not believe that the authorities, as represented by Barnevernet, act “in the child’s best interests”. This lack of trust cannot be explained in this context as the result of cultural differences concerning child upbringing or disagreement about the need in some cases to protect children against their own parents. Rather it is based on a genuine fear that Barnevernet does not safeguard the child’s best interest and that parents at worst may be left without any legal redress.
The starting point for a democratic society must be that we – the people – have trust in the institutions of the state. A fundamental principle is that we have trust in a legal system that enables us to challenge decisions that we do not agree with. At the same time we know that human error and system failures mean that even the institutions of the state are not always without fault. This is knowledge that citizens in Norwegian society acquire through a combination of school, personal experience, and information gleaned from the society around us. But how do we ensure that people who arrive in Norway as adults also acquire this knowledge, possession of which is in the best interests of both themselves and our society, including those institutions that sometimes make mistakes and need correction?
As one of the extended arms of the State, Barnevernet is dependent on having the trust of the entire population. Barnevernet works with families and children, and clearly has to take many difficult decisions. Where the question is whether a child should live with his or her biological parents, there will often be disagreement about the decision. In that situation it is crucial that we all have trust in the assessments and decisions that Barnevernet makes on our behalf and in the child’s best interests. This is true for all families, whether or not they have an immigrant background.
What is Barnevernet doing today to address the challenge of Norway’s changing demographic make-up? Is it possible to respect a child’s rights so as to safeguard that child’s whole identity, even when radical measures are needed? For example, will it be possible to find families who have the same linguistic, cultural and religious backgrounds, if this is also important for the child? Someone from a Polish background who suspects that a child in his or her circle is being neglected may perhaps not report his or her concerns to Barnevernet. This means that Barnevernet will lose the opportunity to resolve the problem at an early stage, which would be in the best interests of the child, the parents and of society as a whole. Even though many immigrants’ fears of local child protection services may be groundless, these fears hamper Barnevernet’s ability to do its job: to protect the children who need its help.
This OpEd by Marta Bivand Erdal, Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), was first published in Norwegian in the daily newspaper Dagbladet 19 December 2012.