We all agree, children are best taken care of by their parents. We also know that sometimes, rarely, families abuse children. In this case, the victims must be taken away from their parents and placed under someone else’s care and legal authority. This is the reason Child Protection Services (CPS) exist – so that impartial professionals establish what is the nature and intensity of the abuse, who are the perpetrators, who might be the person most likely to give the appropriate care to the victim/child and for how long.
This is an extremely heavy responsibility. The CPS workers must be of sound judgment, psychologically balanced, with solid knowledge of all aspects of childhood – including psychological and medical ones. They must not act alone, but be part of larger teams of social workers, psychologists, physicians, lawyers, judges. These teams have to be able to investigate very thoroughly each case of suspicion of abuse. All parts must have the means to be heard – the children and the parents. This means that a community or a state must provide financial resources and appropriate legal grounds to make this system work.
There are a few countries that have understood the importance of this matter and allocate considerable amounts of money to their CPS. One country stands out among them as THE country where children have indeed rights and are particularly guarded against abuse: Norway. This is part of a larger agenda, Norway’s main stated priority being “strengthening the international human rights system”. Norway is and has been for many years one of the largest financial contributors to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva. Norway is the state who selects the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace each year.
Norway’s CPS is called Barnevernet. The system is organized similarly to other CPS in the Western countries. It has several levels of decision that are independent from classic courts of law. The system is also bound to confidentiality.
A few dozen cases since the beginning of modern Barnevernet in 1992 got the attention of international media. Most of these cases concern immigrants (from Eastern Europe, India, Africa and other). These cases start to paint a certain pattern in the way the system works that should be of concern. There are a few common points to all these stories:
-there is usually an anonymous tip or a concerned teacher at school who alerts the Barnevernet
-the children are always separated from one another and placed in foster families;
-they lose all contact to their native cultural background including their mother tongue;
-the parents have the right to a free legal counsel;
-the parents usually report they do not feel their interests are well represented by the legal counsel;
-the appeal procedures are usually very long;
-diplomatic and international interventions do not usually make the procedure shorter nor appear to change the outcome;
-parents are never prosecuted in a regular court of law for the abuse that led to the separation;
-spending years in procedures claiming their children were unjustly taken away from them does not constitute a proof of innocence for parents;
-even in the cases where the system admits an error has been made, the children are not always returned to their parents – separating the children from their foster family after several years is deemed not in their best interest.
Several points need to be addressed:
First of all, confidentiality issues make it difficult to get a good sense of any of the cases: the media only report the parents’ view on the matter – a highly subjective one by nature. Also, without a public account emanating from the CPS on specific cases, one can only judge of its reliability through general statistics. On one side, we have a mother who claims her daughter was taken away from her because she didn’t have enough toys for the child or because the mother will be soon too small to adequately raise the child – reasons so preposterous they automatically tend to discredit the parent. On the other side, we have a powerful system of a wealthy country whose figures show its efficiency. To sum it up, there is a dark side to confidentiality – the lack of control from the public.
Secondly, it has been argued that although other family members such as aunts and uncles come forward and claim temporary custody of the children, the system widely prefers foster care. Foster care system in Norway is largely private. There are private companies managing state funds for foster families as well as their selection. There are advertisements to become foster parents. Harboring a child grants a substantial increase in income. There are political figures involved in the foster care business. Yes, foster care is a business and, like all businesses, there is a profit to be made out of it. There is also a pressure for the business to continuously grow. How can it grow when the rate of abuse is actually very low and constant over the years?
Third, the best interest of a child is, like good parenting, difficult to define, especially from a legal point of view. There are obvious cases – like sexual abuse with a child directly pointing the finger at the parent and exhibiting injuries – where the best interest of the child is crystal clear. Most of the cases are on the contrary in a gray zone: what about mild physical punishments? What about religion? Where does religious indoctrination start? What about feeding from one’s hand, is it force-feeding? What about having an obese child? Doesn’t that imply improper feeding? What about being poor? Doesn’t that represent a loss in terms of chances to become a healthy, well-educated person? In order to prevent misinterpretation and abuse in the name of the law, all these questions and many more should be clearly explained by the legislator. We have to know where we draw the line of unacceptable. We also have to prepare for unexpected consequences, one being taking away the desire to have children of your own in a world that leaves less and less educational choices to the parent.
Forth, there is the question of the acceptable margin of error from a child protection service. When does it stop being a service? If child abuse detection were anything like cancer detection, one would want to set up a system capable of accurately detecting all cancers with the risk of an acceptable amount of false positive results. Cancer is a big deal, like child abuse, so one would want all actual cases to be detected. Unnecessary cancer treatment can lead to very serious side effects. These effects are nonetheless outweighed by the seriousness of leaving cancer untreated. Whereas having even one child’s life unjustly destroyed as a collateral damage in a system that accurately detects all abused children is or should be unacceptable. Statistically speaking, this will only add to the absolute number of damaged children.
Which leads us to the fifth point: what are the outcomes of abused children? What are the outcomes of children in foster or institutional care? There is growing social and scientific evidence that children are best taken care by their biological parents. Unbelievably, the children are sometimes better off with parents who abuse them than in the hands of strangers. Institutionalized kids are a complete mess. In the case of foster care, many children present traumatic disorders which are difficult to link to the abuse in their biologic family or to their new life in foster care. We do know that difficult children are more readily abused by caregivers. It is a spiral of violence that could be ended with immense love and dedication, two things hard to find in “prepaid parents”.
Finally, in all cases where the children are irrevocably separated from their parents there should be a full trial leading to the conviction of the guilty parent. The abuse justifying such a drastic decision must be very damaging and should be illegal.
Most of us have never been in contact with CPS in any country, just like most of us have never been in contact with mental disorder facilities. But they exist and evolve with time. Norway’s Barnevernet is something we all have to question. Is this what we want?
Here are some links to look it up yourselves: