Cultural misunderstandings abound in Norway's notorious child protection system. Now a film in India depicts an infamous case where a young couple lost their children in the Nordic nation due to cultural misrepresentations. It might be time for reform in the child care service.
A poster for the film Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway.
The release of the trailer of Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway has evoked memories of a decade-old case in the public consciousness of India. The film is based on a real-life story about a couple from Calcutta who move to build a new life in Norway, and cultural differences that caused their infant children to be taken away from them by the Norwegian Child Protection Agency.
The case was of a young Indian couple living in Norway and trying to adjust to the complexities of a migrant life. Anuroop and Sagarika Bhattacharya (called the Chatterjees in the film) were parents to their infant Aishwarya and a toddler son Avigyan. The couple fell victim to the strict devices of the Norwegian Child Protection Service, the Barnevernet. The organisation has become infamous for separating children from their parents along shaky grounds of misconduct towards the children and a hostile home environment. This is not to say that all the cases of such separation are based on forged grounds but there has been sufficient proof of considerable bias against migrant families as far as the Norwegian child protection authorities are concerned. While the system was created to develop a safety net for the children who are being subjected to abuse in their own homes and the parents themselves are incapable of taking care of them, it has now become a tool to advance a hostile intolerance against cultural differences.
The Bhattacharyas were separated from their young children in 2011 and the justification of their actions were on the grounds that Mrs. Bhattacharya feeds the children from her hands, the authorities equated it to force feeding the children. They also raised objections to the children sleeping on the same bed with their parents. Both of these reasons garnered a lot of criticism from the Indian public because of the cultural context attached to this. Eating by hand, feeding the children by hand or sleeping in the same room is a very common cultural practice in Indian households. However, owing to the stringent and homogenous laws of the Norwegian child protection that does not leave any room for cultural consideration, the Barnevernet has the right to take the children away from their parents based on mere suspicion of abuse. As a proof of their allegations, the commission has been known to extrapolate the circumstances to justify their actions. It is needless to say that the word of the authorities would bear weight against the migrant families. This is precisely what happened to the Bhattacharyas as well.
After a long and tedious legal circus, the devastated couple had still not been able to justify their claim that they were not abusing their children and were fit to raise them. The Barnevernet at some point also claimed that Mrs. Bhattacharya herself was mentally unstable. Based on the trend of these social services, it is very common for them to render a parent as mentally unstable in order to strengthen their own case. A long drawn diplomatic battle had ensued when the Indian government decided to step in and take action.
It was when the couple had appealed to the Indian External Affairs Ministry that the Indian government got in direct contact with the Norwegian government and criticised their action as being culturally intolerant. After almost two years of this turmoil the Norwegian authorities decided to grant the custody of the children to their uncle which allowed the children to at least get back to their own family. In a situation such as this, it is also very rare for the authorities to grant custody to the other family members or close friends who could still be capable enough to raise the children. However, with the interference of the Indian state it became a high profile matter that brought the Barnevernet and the whole child protection system of the Norwegian state under international scrutiny.
A system mired in scandals
The Norwegian Child Protection Commission, the Barnevernet, has been a part of a strict Norwegian system of child welfare that seeks to put children who are at risk of long term mental and physical health problems due to an unfit family environment are sent to foster care. However, over the period there have been questions raised on the wellbeing of the children who have been absorbed by the system. In the case of the Bhattarcharyas, reports were produced by the commission that stated that the children are better off living in the foster homes than they were with their parents. Such reports with no substantial basis have been a very common trend in the legal battle fought for custody between the commission and the parents.
Cultural intolerance is one of the many evils that exist within this system. The movie in question, which has brought the issue to light once again also denotes an angle which may explain as to why the Barnevernet is so keen to separate many children from their families with no justified grounds. It has been noted that the more children are forced to foster care by the commission, the more it can justify its work. It would not be wrong to suggest that the actions of the commission against migrant families is a direct testament to racial discrimination and the inherent opposition to building a multicultural society.
The case of the Bhattacharyas is not the only case that exists to substantiate the claims of this bias. The Barnevernet is not the only agency that has the power to carry out this bias. It was in 2009 that the Norwegian government decided to establish an expert child welfare commission to deal with the issues of child protection and keep the laws in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This expert commission was composed of psychologists who would review the reports of the Child Protection Service to sanction any action regarding the separation.
A research study is still being conducted into the validity of the procedures to verify these reports. It has been asserted by the research that even though the reports go through the National Commission on Child Welfare Experts, there is no evidence to suggest that the reports are subjected to a systematic research process in order to verify the claims. This signifies a very large loophole in the system of the child protection service in Norway.
Expanding on this discussion of the crisis that exists in the system in question, it is also relevant here to mention a very grave scandal that had erupted in the Norwegian Child Protection structure that brought the hypocrisy of the system out in the open. The case of the psychologist Jo Erik Brøyn is important to mention because it exposes how differently the Norwegian authorities handle the cases with no cultural pretext to them. The psychologist was a member of the expert commission on child welfare and was responsible for reviewing the reports on child welfare while taking important decisions about the future of these children. He was charged with severe allegations of paedophilic behaviour and was found in possession of questionable images and videos of children going through sexual abuse.
As unsettling as the crime itself sounds, the punishment was hardly congruent. It was far back in 2014 that the Norwegian authorities were informed of the matter but Brøyn was allowed to remain the part of the expert committee and enjoy the position of power. He was reportedly engaging in activities of downloading these pictures and videos since 1997. Even in the midst of the legal proceedings, his own children were not separated from him right away, something they would have done so to a migrant without question. Following his eventual arrest amidst all the criticism from within and outside of Norway, his children were placed in the custody of his sister. Again, the Norwegian child services do not allow for the family members or close friends to take immediate custody of the children. Even in the case of the Bhattacharyas, the Indian government itself had to interfere before the custody was finally granted to their paternal uncle.
There are numerous such cases where the Norwegian Child Protection Service has been accused of overstepping their brief and in 2017, 170 leading Norwegian professionals complained to the country's Children’s Minister that the Barnevernet was a ‘dysfunctional organisation which makes far-reaching errors of judgment with serious consequences’. These questions are critical in a country which, while for long homogenous and relatively isolated, is increasingly becoming more diverse.
These psychologists and psychiatrists possess a very strong hold on the policies of child protection in Norway. It may seem to be the correct norm at face value but when even their reports are not subjected to systematic review, it becomes very easy to create biased reports that could separate a healthy family. This is precisely what had happened with the Bhattacharyas and what the organisation continues to be accused of even today.