and the emperor's new clothes
By Erik Rolfsen
original of this article was published in Norwegian
as 'Barnevernet og
keiserens nye klær' in the newspaper Tidens Krav
on 27 July 2015, and in French (here and here) on 4 August 2015. It is
published here in English by the kind consent of the
Translation by Marianne Haslev
the Norwegian Child Welfare Services
(CWS)*, perform an important task and
often carry it out well.
But the CWS also make mistakes. These mistakes often have
enormous consequences for the lives of those affected,
parents and children alike. It is therefore reason for
concern that the system that is supposed to prevent such
mistakes and guard the interests of the private parties is
very expensive and at the same time ill suited to put right
whatever Barnevernet (the CWS) might have done wrong.
When the authorities take a family's children into care,
certain measures of legal protection are to become
operative: the parents have the right to a lawyer, paid by
the state, and a right to have the case tried before the
courts. In the course of the process an expert psychologist
is appointed who familiarizes himself** with the case and writes a
report. As a result we have court cases – often running for
three days – involving: 3-4 lawyers, two CWS employees, an
expert psychologist, a judge who is a jurist, and 2-4 lay
judges, often from child professions, all paid by the
state. The judgment is frequently appealed, whereupon a
similar bunch of people get together for a new round, again
paid by the state.
If only this spending of money guaranteed security under
the law for children and parents! That is not the way the
system works today. There are particularly two obstacles to
proper functioning of the system:
expression 'the best interest of the child' has no
professional experts are engaged and paid by one of the
parties: the CWS (Barnevernet).
What we are
witnessing here are the new clothes of the emperor:
beautiful and expensive materials (read: expressions and
processes) viewed from outside and quite irreproachable. In
reality, it is hot air and playing to the gallery.
It sounds so fine, so right, to say 'in the best interest
of the child'. The problem is that although 'in the child's
best interest' indeed has the status of legal term and is
found in the text of the law (the Child Welfare Act § 4-1),
its content is undefined. There are no measurable,
objective criteria. In addition, we should ask ourselves
who is competent to decide what is the best for a child in
a given situation.
In many cases of parents with serious addiction problems,
serious psychiatric diagnoses or violent behaviour, it is
not problematic to decide that a taking into care is in the
best interest of the child. But the same concept is also
used in cases where no such problems exist. Children are
deprived of their biological parent (usually the mother)
who is not a drug addict, a patient or a violent person,
because the CWS hold that it will be best for the child.
If the mother resists transfer of care, the CWS engage an
expert, usually a psychologist, who is to examine the case
and come up with a report recommending some action. The
expert is selected, engaged and paid by the CWS. The CWS
instruct the psychologist about the case, decide what the
mandate for his investigation is to be, and send him their
case documents (often several hundred pages). As part of
his work, he has 2-3 meetings with the mother and arranges
one or two observations of mother and child together. Then
comes the report, which practically always supports the
opinion which the CWS held from the start.
When the case is heard by the County Committee (a
court-like authority specially mandated to give decisions
in child protection cases), the report is decisive for the
outcome. No wonder, since how would a committee, headed by
a legal professional, be able to run over an expert in the
field of something as indeterminate as 'the best interest
of the child'?
The mother's witnesses are usually her friends, her
siblings and parents, maybe a public health nurse, who say
she is a good mother. The CWS have their own witnesses, in
addition to their own employees and an expert with 5-7
years of university education behind him and several years
of experience. The mother doesn't stand a chance, and
nobody questions the fact of the expert being engaged and
paid by the CWS. The remuneration from such work tends to
make up the larger part or at least a considerable part of
the expert's income. The expert knows that the mother will
never commission any report in future – the municipality
(the CWS) commissions around 5-10 such reports a year.
Tragicomically, if the case is appealed to the district
court, the same performance is repeated. The district judge
will give decisive weight to the same report and the
testimony of the same expert. So the outcome is the same.
Hundreds of millions of crowns are spent on experts,
lawyers, committees and court processes, at the same time
that a whacking part of the CWS resources is spent on
preparing and taking part in committee and court
procedures, without all this increasing to any degree the
the parents' protection under a rule of law.
Something like an industry has developed, called 'child
That is probably the reason why nobody cries out: The
emperor is naked!
Child Welfare Services (CWS) is the official English title
of the Norwegian government service handling child
(cf Wikipedia: Child Welfare Services
'herself', the psychologist being quite as often a woman.
Tel: + 47 992 98 999, firstname.lastname@example.org