In The Best Interest of The Child

Jill Greenberg Studios
Jill Greenberg Studios

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:

a 2012 petition to the European Parliament signed by concerned lawyers, judges and doctors from Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Norway

an article on CPS in Norway and Germany

on foster care and mental disorders

a thorough article on the Barnevernet

on the business of foster homes in Norway

many other links can be found in this topic

a youtube video of a Barnevernet + police intervention

a person worth knowing

Who Cares About Water?

In the rich part of the world, we know water is a major concern for many people, but we’ve never been in that situation ourselves. Some of us suspect our children might have to face the problem. What exactly is the problem? Here are the key facts to grasp a complex situation, insufficiently covered by the media, with direct impact on all of our lives.

Water by the numbers

The volume of all water would be about 332.5 million cubic miles, or 1,386 million cubic kilometers. Compared to the volume of the planet, it would look like this:global-water-volume-fresh
Spheres showing:
(1) All water (sphere over western U.S., 860 miles in diameter)
(2) Fresh liquid water in the ground, lakes, swamps, and rivers (sphere over Kentucky, 169.5 miles in diameter), and
(3) Fresh-water lakes and rivers (sphere over Georgia, 34.9 miles in diameter).
Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS; globe illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (©); Adam Nieman.

Of the world’s total water supply, over 96 % is saltwater. Of total freshwater, over 68% is locked up in ice and glaciers. Another 30% of freshwater is in the ground and is increasingly used by humans. The rest is in rivers and lakes. Most lakes are in very inhospitable regions such as the glacial lakes of Canada, Lake Baikal in Russia or the African Great Lakes. The North American Great Lakes, which contain 21% of the world’s freshwater by volume, are the exception (1). Rivers are the source of most of the fresh surface water people use, but they only constitute about 1/10,000th of one percent of total water (2).

River water and groundwater are the main sources for human use.

Water is never sitting still: our planet’s water supply is constantly moving from one place to another and from one form to another in what we call the water cycle (2). Here are some simple notions you have to keep in mind: Precipitation creates runoff that travels over the ground surface and helps to fill lakes and rivers. It also percolates or moves downward through the soil to replenish aquifers under the ground (3).

It is estimated an additional 1.5 to 11 times the amount of water in the oceans is contained in the Earth’s interior, and some scientists have hypothesized that the water in the mantle is part of a “whole-Earth water cycle” (1).

The first 11 months of 2015, the world consumed over 4500000 billion of liters (4500 km3) (4), mostly on agriculture. Without the water cycle, the water in the rivers would be totally used by humans in less than 50 years.

Asia is the largest consumer. In the years to come, the regions that will see the most important increase in water withdrawal are Africa and South America (5). Here are some trends for the future, that can be sum up in a word:


water use by sector

The highway to hell

The water cycle was thought to be as permanent as sunrise and sunset. There is unquestionable evidence that several human actions disrupt this natural phenomenon:

  • intense urbanization, with less and less “green soil” out in the open, prevents water from percolating and renewing aquifers. It also changes the runoff pattern, the water never reaching the rivers or the lakes and ending up in the ocean.
  • massive pollution rendering water unusable for long periods. One of the latest and most dramatic such cases is the dam rupture and pollution of Rio Doce in Brazil (6). There are also intentional types of pollution – the most important of all being agrochemicals.
  • over-pumping aquifers and lakes to the point where the refill is no longer possible
  • virtual water trade: using water to produce something that will be exported. In the U.S., about one-third of the water is sent out of watersheds through this mechanism (7)
  • climate change – the one we are all familiar with  – causes loss of glaciers and modifies the pattern of rainfall

In order to complete the horror show, did you know that drying out aquifers might have a terrifying effect? (7) You may have heard of a seemingly natural phenomenon – sinkholes. Several factors converge in order to form them. Urbanization  and massive water pumping are frequently noted among them. See below a dramatic image of a Chinese sinkhole in 2013. Others can be seen in Mexico City and Florida.

AFP_AFP_Getty Images
AFP_AFP_Getty Images

Is there a contingency plan?

The short answer is no. There is no public plan for it and mainstream media is generally silent on the question. Why?

Some might say this is proof all this is exaggerated, the threat is in reality milder. It is true, water is still a bargain for the West: the average price of water in the U. S. is about $1.50 for 1,000 gallons (around 3785 liters) (3). You be the judge.

There is a general law of the planet Earth – all things are delicately intricate. This means that when something is imbalanced, a countless series of other elements become imbalanced. The opposite is fortunately also true. Putting our collective efforts into rethinking these roads for mankind will provide the spark that will eventually create a chain-reaction and solve much more than we would have hoped to in the beginning. By doing so, we will also trade our global-warming-triggered depression for an invigorating feeling of hope. This is no small thing.

Acknowledging the existence of the 4 causes – urbanization – pollution – over-pumping and export-based economies – besides the well-known global warming –  is essential in order to begin the search for the right solution. Global warming is becoming a convenient excuse world governments lean on. Instead of trading carbon chips, we might as well try resetting our priorities (i.e. ensuring an above-all-access to clean water), rethinking our cities, putting to use incredibly efficient ideas already existing in alternative agriculture (8) (Monsanto is already one step ahead), scaling down economies to the local level.

We can do more than what we are told to do – check for household leaks, water the lawn in the morning and take 5 minute-long showers (3).

A corporate love affair

In a world where water – especially clean water – becomes scarce, the main question is who will own and who will use the water from the rivers and from the ground. The question of the ownership of lakes, glaciers and even oceans will at some point become even more important.

Remote sources once too difficult to exploit will suddenly become very appealing and technology will always follow in.

A partnership between IBM and a Saudi Arabian research center has been underway since 2010. The project relies on combining two previously unrelated areas of IBM’s knowhow, microprocessor technology (in a new kind of solar panel) and nanotechnology (in a new kind of desalination filter), in the service of a third: making clean water, a business that IBM wasn’t in 8 years ago (9). The world’s largest solar-powered seawater desalination plant incorporating this groundbreaking technology is due to be commissioned in 2017 (10).

The bright side of the market is that companies become extremely efficient in reducing the amounts of water they use because they have discovered it comes with cost cuts in electricity, energy and water treatment. These cuts amount to much more than the direct save from water.  If we add to the equation the analytic capability of a company like IBM, we actually come close to perfection: their microchip plant in Burlington, Vermont. It is a factory where the company makes ultrapure water – necessary to produce semiconductors but harmful to living beings. They have managed to cut water use by 29% by doing some unbelievable things which won’t be detailed here. The key was to find out where the biggest costs related to water were. The act of measuring alone created an imperative for changing behavior (9). This is how IBM discovered the economic potential of water. In a world where more and more networks are highly monitored, water networks had long been overlooked. Not anymore:

IBM is introducing the world to the era of smart water (11).

Other giant corporations have developed a recent appetite for water, including:

  • GE – in 2014, GE was named Water Company of the Year by Global Water Intelligence: “GE Water has transformed itself from a bundle of overpriced acquisitions into the most formidable industrial water company in the world, positioned at the center of the water-energy nexus. In 2013, it was arguably the most successful water company in the business, advancing its activities on all fronts, while many of its competitors struggled” (12)
  • Dow Chemical is “Purifying the essentials of life” through its Water and Process Solutions (13).
  • Procter & Gamble manufactures a mystery powder that restores water to safe-to-drink levels and commits “to Save One Life Every Hour by 2020” (14)
  • Nestlé – Nestlé Waters is the world leader of the bottled water industry with a 11.7 % market share (15). In 2011, Nestlé’s CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, said the only way for the world to manage water distribution properly was to make it something for which we actually had to pay out of pocket (16).

As water becomes scarce, these companies sense the profit-making opportunity: a market develops. There is pressure for water to become a mere commodity. Letting the market manage water may reduce its waste, but not all companies are as efficient as the IBM Burlington water plant. In France,  municipal water resources have been managed privately, then reclaimed by the government – with an actual distribution cost cut (16). Other voices claim that water is too precious to be mismanaged by governments (17).

Behind the marketing smokescreen, one has to recognize that the same companies responsible for very serious and long-term water pollution (18) are the ones that promise to adequately manage all aspects of water, including reuse and recycling. If they massively invest in recycling, what is the financial incentive to stop polluting?

Do we rely on recycling water or do we protect the sources we use? Can corporations do both without a conflict of interest?

Protecting the abused

Water is omnipresent on the planet and in our bodies, to the point that it has no color nor smell to us. For a long time, water was just there, within our grasp, not worth to mention.

We need to remember that water and life are inseparable. No known living thing can function without water, and there is life wherever there is water on Earth (19).

We need to remember that people can survive weeks without food and only days without water (3).

In 2006, the UN released a Human Development Report with an eloquent title: Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis (20). The whole report is worth reading, but 2 figures are mind-numbing and probably haven’t improved since:

1.1 billion people don’t have access to drinking water.
1.8 million children die annually from water-related disease.

How do we protect the children, the poor, water and ultimately all Life? Some say we need laws and regulations, but to what extent? What kinds of water should be concerned – drinking, domestic, industrial? Should laws concern water – who owns it, uses it, distributes it, cleans it – or all the other aspects that imply access to clean water, such as food, health and hygiene? Should laws transform housing and education in order to protect this right to water? Should laws regulate the biggest polluters – the industry – energy – agriculture? How?

To this day, two nations have included a right to water in their Constitution: South Africa (21) and Uruguay (22). The amendment to Uruguay’s Constitution was initiated through popular referendum. The amendment states that access to piped water and sanitation are fundamental human rights, and that social considerations take priority over economic considerations in water policies. This type of initiative should be acclaimed, studied and improved. The stakes regarding water are so high, unprecedented measures should be taken. Our political system should be remodeled around this core of rights. Exceptional care should be taken to protect Constitutional Courts from political and lobbyist influences that could weaken the implementation of constitutional law (23). The people in power – the governments – should be personally held responsible for failing to protect these rights and punished accordingly.

The ones that control water control life on Earth. Acknowledge it and talk about it.


A person worth knowing: Maude Barlow

Photo by Wolfgang Schmidt
Photo by Wolfgang Schmidt

Data gathering and writing: 40 hours of work. All sources free on the Internet. The author is the opposite of an expert. No conflict of interest to declare.