15 August 2018

A new BBC documentary on Norwegian child protection

By Marianne Haslev Skånland

(Note: Translations from Norwegian are mine. The original Norwegian formulations are found in the sources given.  MHS)

A BBC documentary in August 2018

BBC journalist Tim Whewell has made a new documentary relating to Barnevernet, the Norwegian child protection service (CPS). There have been some quite revealing reactions in Norway in its wake.

The documentary comes in all of three versions:

Norway's hidden scandal
BBC.co.uk, 2 August 2018

Norway's hidden scandal
BBC.co.uk, 2 August 2018

TV program:
BBC – Our world – Norway's silent scandal
BBC Newsnight, on youtube, 6 August 2018

The radio programme contains more detailed dialogue, hence even better connected reasoning than the tv version.

BBC's starting point is a court case and sentencing, for illegal child pornography, of a child psychiatrist who has functioned as an expert in many cases leading to children being deprived of their parents. He has worked both as an evaluator of families and, being a member of the Expert Commission on Children, as an evaluator of other psychology reports on families. The
Judgment says explicitly, on the first page: "No limitations on the permission for public rendering." (Ingen begrensninger i adgangen til offentlig gjengivelse.)

Jan Simonsen and Marianne Haslev Skånland:
Crime and assessments in child protection circles in Norway
 – A court case, comparisons, and implications

18 / 26 May 2018

Jan Simonsen and Marianne Haslev Skånland:
A case exposing the double standards of Norway's CPS
Sunday Guardian, 12 May 2018

Tim Whewell interviews two mothers whose children have been taken, in cases in which this psychiatrist has been active. Whewell also interviews some other professionals in child protection-related positions, and tries to get a response from the government minister concerned, regarding what will be done about the cases in which the disgraced and sentenced psychiatrist has evaluated families, and about the system that is open for such experts.

The tv version – possibly also the radio version – has been shown several times on BBC World News, and there has been alert interest from several countries: the Netherlands, Germany, Britain, South Africa and Brazil. It has evidently hit hard, which is all to the good. Norwegian victims of a 'protection' which devastates families and does not protect children, need help from foreign countries being informed if we are ever to be able to stop the present actions and initiate a proper social service instead.


This is the second documentary on the theme of child protection in Norway made by BBC's Tim Whewell. The first was in 2016, at the time when the Bodnariu case made for headlines and demonstrations practically all over the world – 

Tim Whewell:
Norway's Barnevernet: They took our four children... then the baby
BBC News News Magazine, 14 April 2016

Tim Whewell:
BBC – Our World – Norway: Parents Against the State
Jacqueline Jonquille, on youtube, 17 April 2016

So Whewell is not new to discussions and arguments about child protection in Norway. This 2018 documentary is very good and brings out a number of things which are not exactly flattering for Norwegian authorities.

Norwegian reactions to the BBC documentary

The reaction in Norwegian mainstream media to the 2018 documentary was to start with as expected: rather absent, an exception being the nationally distributed Dagbladet. They interviewed Whewell in connection with the new documentary, the interview being penned by a journalist who was familiar with the court case against the child psychiatrist, having reported when the case was running (cf the reference list in
Crime and assessments ... referred to above):

Slik får tv-verden se barnevernet: «Norges skjulte skandale»
(This is how the tv world will get to see Barnevernet: "Norway's hidden scandal")
BBC: - Mer støy om barnevernssaker i Norge enn andre land.
(BBC: More noise over child protection cases in Norway than in other countries.)
Dagbladet, 4 August 2018

However, NTB (the national Norwegian news agency) also produced an article:

BBC med dokumentar om norsk barnevern
(BBC with documentary about Norwegian child protection)
Journalisten, 5 August 2018

and a follow-up, which were
published or quoted in a number of national and local newspapers. After that, there have been a few articles written by some newspapers, as well as by people associated with the child protection system.


The NTB article seems to try and set the tenor of such debate as there may be, their article about the documentary beginning:
"Here the British national broadcasting company takes up what they think are problems of the child protection system in this country." The uppety opinion of media representing official Norway is pretty clear: the BBC thinks so, but they are not informed the reliable the way we in Norwegian officialdom are. Such formulations are no different from what we are used to in almost any article about CPS cases which mainstream media here is willing to write.

Some examples

I should like to show readers abroad some points which emerge in these articles, points about official Norway and the way they reason.

•  The Minister and the Ministry for Children

The Minister for Children and Equality Linda Hofstad Helleland and her government department have not wanted to talk with BBC's journalist. Dagbladet's
Slik får tv-verden se ... as well as NTB quote what Helleland's communications office writes about the reason:

"The journalist asked for an interview with Minister Helleland about the development in Barnevernet, as a follow-up to the program made by the journalist two years ago. He was especially interested in what the implications of the judgment against the psychiatrist might be, in connection with the cases in which the psychiatrist has been involved, both on municipal and county level and in the Expert Commission on Children (ECC – Barnesakkyndig Kommisjon). The journalist also stated that his questions were detailed and wanted to take it up in an interview or a background talk.
    We first answered by informing him about the changes in the child protection law which came into force in July of this year, and about the report from the Board of Health Supervision (Helsetilsynet) which we have not received yet, so that he would have to return to these questions later. We said that the Ministry cannot comment on the specific case in connection with the ECC. After a telephone conversation with the journalist in which both the judgment against the psychiatrist and an asylum case in Poland were mentioned as cases he wanted to cover, we replied that we could not comment on this, and that we had no possibility of granting an interview this time."

Helleland ville ikke gi kommentar til BBC-dokumentar om norsk barnevern
(Helleland would not give a comment regarding the BBC documentary on Norwegian child protection)
Resett, 5 August 2018

The BBC here receives an example of a trick which has been allowed to be established in Norway, and which every CPS victim has come up against: Norwegian politicians and administrators on every level, as well as the CPS employees themselves, have been handed a principle of "we cannot comment on individual cases". In reality it implies that nobody at any time has to take the responsibility for the results of anything done by the CPS.

• Mainstream Nettavisen ('web newspaper')

has an unbelievable little question tag following its posting of the NTB article:
Barneminister Linda Hofstad Helleland ville ikke kommentere BBC-dokumentar om norsk barnevern
(Children's minister Linda Hofstad Helleland would not comment on the BBC documentary about Norwegian child protection)
Nettavisen, 5 August 2018

The question:
What do you think of Norwegian Barnevernet?
"This is an informal opinion poll of what the readers in this case think. The result need not be representative of the population mean."
The reader can choose between:
– It is not good enough. The government must increase their budget.
– I am not sure.
– It is fine the way it is today.

•  A former Children's Ombudsman

Reidar Hjermann, specialist psychologist, Children's Ombudsman 2004-2012, was interviewed in the BBC program, and although he talks of disagreeing with this particular psychiatrist in a case in which Hjermann had gone against taking the children (they sometimes do, hence appear to be doing real expert evaluations), he of course defended the child protection system. In an article he then instructs the Minister how he thinks she could have got out of answering precise questions but nevertheless impressed the BBC and the world with one of the usual, airy replies to questions concerning the disgraced and convicted child psychiatrist who has evaluated families and the work of other psychologists, and concerning concerning the asylum applications of Silje Garmo and other Norwegians in Poland:

Reidar Hjermann:
Dette burde du sagt til BBC, Helleland
(This is what you should have said to the BBC, Helleland)
Dagbladet, 7 August 2018

"While I am unable to say anything about the concrete cases you point to, I can say that Barnevernet is the most important, but also one of the most complicated help systems we have for children and families in Norway. Because these are people working with people in very complex cases full of conflict, there will once in a while be things that are done which we afterwards see to have been wrong. This is implicit in the essence of the discipline, and we must to some degree expect deviance to occur. Therefore, we must in all these cases turn every stone in order to see what could have been done differently, so that we get to have a child protection service which is developing all the time, a child protection service which even further strengthens Norway as the world's best and safest place for children to live."

In other words, Mr Hjermann thinks that representatives for the child protection system assuring us that the system is fine, while keeping their eyes closed to the realities of individual cases and saying nothing about them, constitutes adequate proof. And he thinks that BBC's journalist, plus viewers around the world, will surely be won over to the Norwegian view and conclude that Norway is best of all.
   Well, who knows, lots of people may bow to the assurances of one having had the experience of being children's ombudsman. He may have underestimated BBC, however, as may also the Ministry's Mr Ostling, see below.

Some considerable naïveté and superciliousness ( – stronger terms even might be apposite) may be recognised in the attitude of this psychologist-cum-ombudsman. But he is hardly more extreme than the rest of our establishment in Norway. A degree of mania about "Norway Norway" has gripped us ever since we started pumping oil from the North Sea and got super rich.

•  Spokesman on family politics for the Socialist Left Party, MP Freddy Andre Øvstegård,
•  Assistant director of Bufdir Kjetil A. Ostling

Dagbladet continues to be the most active paper concerning this issue right now. Several people are interviewed for
«Norges skjulte skandale» fortsetter i tingretten
('Norway's hidden scandal' continues in the District Court)
Dagbladet, 10 August 2018

The article brings further details about the case of Inez, in whose case the convicted child psychiatrist has been involved as an evaluator. It links to an article back in 2016, with the title
"The mother must admit violence she has been acquitted of before Barnevernet will consider giving the children back to her". (The system in Norway is that a criminal case, e.g against a parent carrying out physical violence to a child, is a separate case from a CPS case dealing with whether the child should be taken away from its parent(s). So the CPS is able to be indifferent to her being acquitted in the criminal court and make their own demands in the CPS case.)
    An unusual feature about this case is that now, after several years, the CPS office has given up holding Inez to be an unsuitable mother, so the buck has in a sense been passed to the County Board, which will not let the youngest children go home anyway. The County Board decision therefore has to be appealed to the District Court.
    It is not so surprising that a county board sticks to its previous opinion regardless. County boards, which function as first instance decision makers in CPS cases, consist of the same kind of people as the rest of the CPS industry: a leader who is a lawyer, assistant "judges" who are often social workers, psychologists or others trained in the ruling CPS views. The regular courts to which decisions can be appealed are much the same. The county boards, by the way, are now in the pipeline for being converted (re-named) into specially competent "family courts". If anybody gets hopeful hearing this, they should have a look at Länsrätten in Sweden and the family courts in Britain.

The spokesman in Parliament for the Socialist Left Party (SV) on family politics, Freddy Andre Øvstegård, agrees with Hjermann, and says that Helleland's silence is
"a betrayal of all the competent experts working in Barnevernet who are subject to massive pressure, and of all the children who depend on Barnevernet's protection." He also says that Helleland should have answered that "Norway takes individual cases seriously and defends the important job the child protection service and the employees do". To everybody who has experienced the "we cannot go into individual cases" reply when in despair they have begged politicians to do something about the way Barnevernet has treated their cases, the two parts of Mr Øvstegård's statement contradict each other considerably.

And here is the Assistant Director of
Bufdir (the directorate within the Ministry concerned with Barnevernet), Kjetil A. Ostling, confirming that the state indeed, regardless of "some pressure" which they understand is there, intends to continue the irresponsibility of refusing to do anything about individual cases:

"– As expert directorate for Barnevernet, we do not know individual cases and therefore cannot say anything about them. Takings into care are often difficult and complex cases with a strong emotional commitment, and reticence should be shown in such cases both by the press and by individual persons."

So not only does Ostling not intend to discuss individual cases, he even assures us that Bufdir does not know anything about them. Still, they are the experts, so they know all about Barnevernet generally, is the implicit suggestion. But this generality, Mr Ostling, is actually the sum of all the individual cases Barnevernet is involved in and statistics based on them. Statistics implies people!

His reference to "emotional commitment" is a suggestion that critics who are appalled at what is going on, are not balanced, clear-thinking or objective, in the way which he thinks everyone must be in order for the authorities to listen to them.

He continues by venting a not-so-hidden contempt on those who criticise; they should rather show reticence (shut up)
: "... but it is important to differentiate constructive criticism from personally perceived offences and special agendas", and on the BBC, since they have allowed "individuals with a strong and wellknown commitment against Barnevernet to make themselves heard".
"Here criticism of one's sources is important. Norwegian media generally exercises strong criticism of the sources, especially in sensitive and difficult cases like those of Barnevernet. We think this is important and right. We do not know how the BBC has carried out criticism of its sources."

•  The Expert Commission on Children (ECC) and its leader, psychologist Katrin Koch,
•  Again Mr Ostling

The newspaper Aftenposten too has done some interviewing.

Sakkyndig psykiater dømt for nedlasting av overgrepsfilmer: – Barnevernet bør se på sakene på nytt, mener kommisjonsleder.
(Expert psychiatrist convicted for downloading of abuse films: – Barnevernet should look at the cases again, says Commission leader.)
Aftenposten, 10 August 2018

Sounds nice that the ECC takes the initiative to re-examine reports. However, the text – and what we know about their mandate – makes it clear that what they do is to check the reports against purely formal rules and compare them with other reports, with a self-evident basis of belief in the general competence and rightness of decisions dished out by the ECC. They do not go into the
facts of the cases. First of all, they would have to have all the case documents, and as far as I know they do not have them. Secondly (very ominous to the whole psychological/psychiatric profession and to Barnevernet as a whole), they would have to go into the real facts, which would also necessitate talking with the private parties valuing their truthfulness on the same level as they would have to do that of the Barnevernet industry. The basic problem is still there: All these people, and indeed the mainstream media in Norway, take it for granted that public employees are truthful and competent and that they render good service.

ECC leader psychologist Katrin Koch is wonderfully revealing when she says:
" – There are about 25 cases for which I have gone into whether his assessments deviate from that of other members.
– It is a reasonable question to pose whether his general expert judgment ability has been influenced by his private situation. For examples if he has to a large extent taken the parents' side in abuse cases.
– I found nothing like that, his assessments are not generally different from those of the other members."

Exactly! They all come up with the same kind of assessments of whether children should be taken away from their parents. The only worry the people in the ECC can se regarding this particular psychiatrist, is whether he can be suspected of having sided with parents! And no mention of the dismal results which child protection care has –
generally. Our generality-loving authorities otherwise speak like automatons of general facts. Just not this one type of fact. They carefully avoid ever to mention it. This has been known for years, through research.

From research:
Bo Vinnerljung (1996): 
Fosterbarn som vuxna (Foster children as adults)
Lund Studies in Social Welfare XIII  Lund: Arkiv förlag. ISBN 91-7924-091-7 
    "Long-term stable foster care does not see[m] to have improved outcome in adult age compared to growing up in "insufficient" family environments, identical to the birth homes of the foster children" (p 315);
    "But one of the basic problems of public ward is that it has difficulties establishing permanency, both 'objectively' ..... and as a perceived situation for the foster children.’"(p 90);
    "All studies show similar or poorer results for foster children when compared to children from risk groups etc living at home. ...... In sum: some variations are found but nobody has found that foster children do better." (p 78);
    "There are several examples showing that notions about the type of social care having compensatory power have been put to shame through research about "results", ..." (p 116).

A couple of illustrative examples:
Educating the young – better through cooperation with the child protection agency (CPS)?
18 September 2014

Hilarious Norway! Everything is all right, according to Katrin Koch and all the others, provided they all do the same and think the same, and do not by any chance take parents seriously or bother about the statistical results of care under Barnevernet.

In the same vein, we hear again from Kjetil Ostling of Bufdir. He is interviewed in Aftenposten too. Once again he conveys that every aspect of the Norwegian system is excellent – in general. Very revealing of the general business of the Barnevern industry on all levels is this statement, as to whether especially the cases in which this particular psychiatrist has taken part should be reconsidered:
" – We have not considered it, and have no basis for saying anything about it. At the same time we take note of the fact that the ECC has gone through a number of cases and have found that the convicted psychiatrist's assessments do not deviate from that of other members' assessments".

Ostling even has the courage to claim that
"– Generally there is a very high degree of security of rule of law in Norway. Cases involving taking into care are often tried before courts on several levels after being treated in the County Boards. All of these instances have thorough processes.
– A high expert quality on all levels of the case handling is to secure the children of rule of law and of security. At the same time faults may occur. Therefore, the services in the municipalities are also to be subject to quality control from the state's authorities and critical journalism."

Control from the state's authorities and critical journalism? Journalism directed by Bufdir & co about what to think and say, how to carry out source criticism, and to, every time, accept that the authorities will not "go into individual cases" but that these are all all right and that the system guarantees it?

Regarding "quality control from the state's authorities", it should be noted that the government was called upon in the summer of 2015 to have a review done of a selection of care orders. The Minister agreed in the autumn. The job might probably have been accomplished in two or three months, which could lead up to the Minister proposing some necessary reforms in the spring of 2016. The Ministry, though, decided in the autumn of 2016 on some legal reforms necessary to grant exemption from confidentiality of the documents for 100 cases, although the review would be carried out by Helsetilsynet (the Board of Health Supervision). One would think the Board knew already what is going on, because this Board is the establishment organised under the Ministry of Health and Care Services which already holds joint top responsibility with the Ministry of Children and Equality for what Barnevernet does (cf
Crime and assessments ...) and has nonetheless never stopped them. They have the responsibility but no right "to go into individual cases"?
    According to what we hear, the Board of Health Supervision now plans to decide quite soon on principles for the selection of cases to be gone through. They think the work will take a couple of years.
    Nor will this review lead to any cases of children in care be taken up on the authorities' initiative with a view to cancel placement. Instead, the authorities aim to "learn" from them and be better in the future, if anything is found to have been unfortunate. Doing better in the future sounds nice. It is, however, what the CPS and their superiors and the politicians say whenever a tragic CPS case is exposed and leads to criticism. At the same time, the CPS agencies continue as before, and the teaching new social workers get through their education remains the same.


These articles, especially seen together, make quite a good beginning for thinking people to start realising the sorry reality of a destructive and oppressive system, which Norwegian child protection is, from the bottom and up to the lacquered facade.

• Sexologist Thore Langfeldt

was interviewed in the BBC documentary. He had been a witness in the court case against the psychiatrist. He rather hit the nail on the head in his concluding remarks, concerning what our authorities want:

"But this is about the credibility of the system, isn't it? It's not about one man, it's about the issue of the system that employed him." – – –
"But I think there are more cases of people being convicted that have been working with children. If we should take all those cases up, I don't think we would be able to figure out what we should do. I mean it would be impossible."
"Because of what would happen, it would lead to massive compensation claims?"
Langfeldt: "Yes, it would be hundreds and hundreds of people. And I think the system would collapse. We wouldn't be able to handle it. So it's better to sometimes just let sleeping dogs – sleep."

So obviously no thought that the first thing that ought to happen, is to set the children concerned free and let them go home.
    Furthermore, there is a staggering number of CPS cases not relating to convicted employees but in which children have nevertheless been deprived of their parents on insufficient – even untruthful – grounds. The authorities know this and reversed cases are accordingly among the things they are most frightened of. That is also a major factor in their fear of openness and publicity.


Listening to all these people with power over the lives of others is like hearing functionaries of a state in Eastern Europe under communism talk.

Back to the BBC documentary, and ahead

It seems unlikely, as indeed confirmed by the BBC documentary and the interviews it brings, plus Norwegian reactions to it, that any important information, let alone discussion of the realities of the CPS in Norway, can be elicited from people in authority. Efficient change will never come from within the system. They stick to silence and to sending inquirers on a kafkaesque meandering journey through the oversized industry and, if inquirers persist, along the same roads that CPS victims are used to. We know this already.

The authorities hold courses and seminars and symposiums, of course, but these are always "under quality control from the state's authorities". A not untypical demonstration of this occurred at a seminar held by the Ministry in 2015, ostensibly aimed at discussing how the CPS could achieve better confidence among people: Norway's former judge in the European Commission of Human Rights, Gro Hillestad Thune, was not allowed to speak.
Had to sit in the audience

There have been foreign tv programs about Norwegian CPS before, but more examples like this BBC documentary are needed. They must probably take the bulk of their information from "grass roots" and look for other sources than our authorities to verify it.

There are important points that were not explored in the present documentary. The BBC documentary has made an impact and some other countries have again shown an interest. There are even rumours that the BBC are thinking of making a follow-up. It is possible, therefore, that some broader issues might be covered more thoroughly than hitherto.

A few such issues:

In his interview with one of the mothers, Cecilie, Tim Whewell says that the CPS had been worried about her child for a long time, and especially because Cecilie would not accept help from the CPS. On such topics, several things should be demonstrated.
    One is that Barnevernet keeps some families under pressure and in fear of losing each other for a very long time, until they are so exhausted that Barnevernet has an easier job of getting the decision makers of the courts to believe that "the family has not shown any improvement, things are actually getting worse, however much we have tried to help them."
    Another is that Barnevernet's "worry" is often, I would even say normally, not based on anything which can
realistically be laid at the parents' door. They even invent complaints. The basis for all this is found in their psychological and social ideology, which is faulty down to the roots.
    A third important point is to clarify to viewers and listeners what Barnevernet's "help" really consists of. Many parents who have had it forced on them, and other witnesses including very reliable ones, can throw light on it. Most of this "help" is interference, either irrelevant, not needed, or destructive.

It also needs to be expressed and demonstrated that the existence of shortcomings or worse on the part of parents in no way justifies accusations and actions of the CPS and their experts frequently employed today.
    If a child absolutely needs to be removed from its biological family, such a decision should be based on clear facts of a kind that makes the necessity understandable to society generally. Arguments about subtle psychological intricacies or possible future care failure are not based on scientific facts at all; they are guesswork, and the failure rate of children taken by the CPS shows them even to be bad guesswork, considerably
less predictive than chance.
    Whether children should be taken into care is irrelevant to the fact that the CPS employs pressure and untruthful and incompetent methods to bring it about, and techniques which really call for cases being brought to the European Court of Human Rights on a complaint of violation of
Article 3 forbidding torture.
    The weakest version of this is the way the CPS "observes" families. At "family centres" where families are forced to live, this can take place around the clock. A somewhat stronger version is recommended by Kari Killén in her influential textbook
Sveket. Omsorgssvikt er alles ansvar (Betrayed. Care failure is everybody's responsibility). She describes it in this way (cf The assessments made by the Norwegian child protection service (CPS)):
"It is often necessary for us to deliberately frustrate the parents to make it possible to evaluate this very important function. If parents show very limited capacity for frustration toleration when we are present, we have to doubt how it functions in a situation without social control, when nobody else is present except the parents and the child." 

Towards the end of the program, Whewell says: "In some ways it's unfair to single Norway out."

No, it's not unfair, it's just inefficient.

It's inefficient when the Norwegian system is made out to be an oddity, nothing like it is in other countries. Norwegian authorities can easily come up with statistics showing that Norway does not take more children into care than many other countries we can naturally be compared to. Social work is fairly international, the way it is currently being carried out in all Western countries much the same (cf
The attitude of social professions involved in the child protection sector). If one just concentrates on the Norwegian situation, then foreign politicians, scholars and officials will usually react in one of two ways: Some will just conclude that "Then it does not concern us". Others will find out by asking their colleagues, or others presumably knowledgeable, that their own country does much the same, only the protests are not as clear as in Norway at present. They will tend to be defensive about it – there are many experiences of this – and will conclude that they do not care to criticise or interfere with what is going on up north, because it might lead to conflict with one's own country's authorities along with it. This reaction does not help the situation in other countries either.

No such reactions will in the longer run lead anywhere. The whole problem needs to be attacked on a broad basis.

The person who may have seen this most clearly is perhaps Václav Klaus Jr., who said in his speech in Prague on 30 May 2015, at the demonstration against Norwegian child protection:
"The problem is not only in Norway, even though the situation achieves the most horrific values in Norway ... everything is pretty much ready here to start the same system. We already have the very similar "Barnevernet" law, we already have paid foster parents so people don't take kids for giving them love but to get money. We have those so called non-profit organizations that organize the whole process. Now it is just about waiting when all the current social workers will be replaced by the zealous activists. Then the same inferno starts here as well. ... The situation is serious and I really don't understand (to) those appeals for peacefulness demonstrations because they're stealing children! What could be wors(t)? They may make new regulations, they may increase taxes. So, ok, we'll be poorer. But they are stealing children from mothers! Let's resist, let's fight back!"
Václav Klaus Jr. – education expert speaks against stealing children by government
NorskoKradeDěti NorwayStealsChildren, 1 June 2015

It is necessary to take the bull by the horns.