The European Court of Human Rights has so far condemned Norway in 13 cases under the European Convention on Human Rights. These are cases involving the Norwegian childcare system, and they are not all: there are at least 20 other cases pending before the European Court of Human Rights. The latest judgement ruled that Norway had violated the right to family life under Article 8 of the European Convention.
Between 1982 and 1998, Norwegian human rights lawyer Gro Hillestad Thune was a representative at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and, in an interview, says that for 20 years she has been repeating the existence of human rights violations in the Norwegian child protection system, called ‘barnevernet’. Gro Hillestad Thune compares it to a war between the children and the aid apparatus, which instead of making things easier for the children, reinforces the conflicts around them. I quote from his interview: ‘It is a myth that society can take care of children, the state is a bad mother’. He added: ‘Child protection practices violate human rights, not least the rights of children’. But Gro Hillestad’s warnings are ignored.
All this happens because the law does not protect children, because it only applies to biological parents and not to authorities. If the parents are wrong, the children pay. If the authorities make a mistake, the children always pay. The Convention on the Rights of the Child was created to protect children’s rights, yet we continue to read almost daily about sexual abuse, rape and violence, threats and violations and deprivation of their rights – while the perpetrators of these crimes, defended by their status as state employees, get away with no convictions and no administrative consequences for failing in their supervisory role. Yet they are the ones responsible for these children, because the law has entrusted them with children who have been forcibly taken away from their families. If the foster carers do not defend their safety, who will? Evidently, in Norway, when a child dies or is harmed by the authorities it is not regarded as such a serious matter, which is why so many very serious cases come before the Strasbourg Court.
When the director of the Norwegian Institute for Human Rights (NIM) Adele Matheson publicly states that ‘Norway is worst in class when it comes to child protection’, then there must be serious flaws and shortcomings. The Children’s Ombudsman, the Forandringsfabriken, the Norwegian Inspectorate and the National Audit Office have all raised the alarm about the serious failure of the implementation of the Child Protection Act. This law has been progressively updated for 120 years, but it does not improve: on the contrary, it makes the situation worse. Even the governor of Vestland County, Helga Arianson, who last autumn levelled fierce criticism at the childcare institutions, which she had supervised for many years, speaks openly about the failure of a number of Norwegian laws that punish women and children in particular.
Yet the Child Care Act clearly states that child care must work ‘with respect for and as far as possible in cooperation with the child and his or her parents’. In practice, the authorities merely separate and break up families by forcibly adopting their children to other families. Few people rebel, because they fear worse reprisals, especially if they are economically disadvantaged families or foreign workers.
The case of Shatha Al-Barghouti
Shatha Al-Barghouti, right, next to her mother
The Al-Barghouti family came to Norway fleeing Palestine, hoping to provide a safe future for their children, but things turned out differently. The mysterious death of little Shatha Al-Barghouti prompted the Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor to demand an immediate investigation by the Norwegian government into the sudden death of the Palestinian girl. Shatha, who had been forcibly separated from her parents and two younger siblings and forcibly placed in a public facility, had finally, after seven years, almost reached the age of majority to decide for herself where she wanted to live.
After asking to return to her parents, Shatha and her family planned the day she would be able to go home, but her happiness was short-lived: two weeks before appearing in court to get permission to go home, the girl was found dead in her bed – according to the police investigation, she had committed suicide. The family could not understand why, and had reported to the police that their daughter’s body was covered in bruises. Shatha was 17 years old when she died, on 21 August 2019. Shatha’s last words to her parents were: ‘When I return home to be with my family, I will be 17. Then I will complete my studies and specialise in law to become a lawyer and bring home the other two brothers who are still in prison’ . Are these really the words of a suicide?
The child had been taken away from her mother, who was accused of not being able to take care of her. The Norwegian journalists’ investigation showed that the little girl was isolated for three years in a public institution, without privacy, sleeping on a makeshift air mattress, with three full-time paid guardians. All that was left in Shetha’s room was the air mattress on the floor and some photos with her mother. The newspapers called that closet ‘the room without furniture’. One wonders why the state had the money to pay the three employees but not the money to furnish a room for the child.
The next question: was the child really neglected by her mother to such an extent that she had to be taken away from her? Shatha’s mother claims that there were never any problems, but that the little girl struggled in kindergarten and school: if only she had had a little support she could have given her much more. The little girl was placed in a building where there was nothing nearby, no convenience store, no petrol station, no neighbourhood infrastructure. She had no opportunity to have contact with other children her age. The Children’s Bureau (Bufetat) now considers these conditions to violate the girl’s basic human rights and to be indefensible.
According to the documents of the Strasbourg proceedings, the girl’s condition has worsened, she has been diagnosed with autism. I can imagine that even an adult could not bear to be kept in these conditions, so I cannot even imagine how that little girl spent three years in this state. If the child had lived with her parents in a similar situation, the media would have made a fuss, the parents would have been sued and probably sentenced to prison. But if it is the authorities who neglect the child and there is no conviction for this, then it means that the law does not defend children against the state.
Stories of rape, arson and despair
London, March 2018: march of Norwegians against the Child Custody Act in England because it was banned in Norway
The Norwegian authorities continue to spend tens of millions of dollars a year on child protection services, often paid to people already accused of sexual abuse. That a young man of only 24 years old works as a substitute teacher in an institution and is allowed to become the adoptive father of Amir, who was then 15 years old, is madness. This was the beginning of the man’s career, and he went on to start his own business, expanding and selling services within the Norwegian childcare system (barnevernet). He went on to sell services to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, but the story doesn’t stop there: the same child welfare agency sued him for sexually abusing Amir. A few years later, Amir finally told of the sexual abuse by the man, which went on for several years.
Worst of all, when asked why he had never told anyone that he had been abused, Amir explained that no one would believe him. If the choice was between being abused once or twice a week, or being locked up in an institution, then rape was better. Amir never got justice, because the trial was postponed three times, the last time being because two other people came forward who would suffer the same fate as Amir.
After three years of waiting, three months before the trial, Amir was found dead in his flat. After Amir’s death, the case was closed, although the vehement reaction of the press convinced the Attorney General’s Office to reopen the case. Amir’s adoptive father was accused of offering Amir and his twin brother a large sum of money to persuade Amir to change their story: the adoptive father was acquitted and the police carried out a superficial investigation, until the Norwegian newspaper VG presented new information proving that Amir had told the truth.
Then there are children who set fire to their foster homes because they are desperate and see no other way out. One example: Emilie says she felt she was treated unfairly, had no way out and was desperate, so she set fire to her foster home. Emilie was transferred 8 times to 8 different institutions. In 2021, 51 children’s homes were set on fire by children, an increase from the previous year, when 29 fires occurred. But has anything really been done to solve the problem? Yes, they are increasing fire safety and discussing adding night guards, but they are not addressing the root of the problem, only its effects. No one asks why these children do not want to be in these places and resort to desperate measures, leading them to be branded as criminals for the rest of their lives, convicted of arson, when all they wanted was to be free of these child protection homes .
Another example. The municipality of Grong in Trondelag is home to the child protection office of Indre Namdal county. A woman, sentenced to sterilisation, considers this office guilty of depriving her of her dignity and the right to decide on her own body. The woman, Beate, realised that if she did not consent to sterilisation after giving birth, child protection would take her child away. According to Beate, they would tell her that they could enter the delivery room and take the baby if she did not consent to sterilisation. Now it is done: Beate is 28 years old and can never have children again. Bjorn Ståle Aalberg, director of the office, admits that abuse was committed in this case. Nevertheless, Beate has lost her children, taken away from the barnevernet, and she is fighting to get them back.
A stolen childhood
There is necessarily something deeply wrong when everyone (the experts, the lawyers, the Child Warrant Officer, the psychologists, the media and above all the children and parents) sound the alarm and say that there is something wrong with the Norwegian child protection system, and yet no one changes anything; there must be a serious fault of the Norwegian state, which does not take action and put an end to a system that does not work. The latest audit by the Norwegian Health Inspectorate, conducted in 2021-2022, found that in 80 out of 90 cases examined, the child protection office had broken the law. Yet children continue to be harmed and traumatised.
Who will one day be able to bring justice to those children who have died and are dying under child protection in Norway, to those children whose childhood has been stolen by Norwegian child protection, who will be able to give childhood back to them? No one, of course. No amount of money will be able to repay the children for what has been taken from them by the child protection system. These children will never again be able to trust the authorities. A stolen childhood can never be returned.
On 20 May this year, the long-awaited film starring Rani Mukerji, ‘Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway’, based on the true story of an Indian mother who had to fight the state to get her children back, will be released in Bollywood. The Norwegian Foreign Ministry has already prepared for possible street clashes when the film is shown. The Ministry says that for many years Norway has been the target of campaigns from Eastern Europe, India and the United States similar to those conducted against Swedish social services, according to which Norway kidnaps children. Several Polish families who had their children taken from Norwegian childcare managed to get them back and took them out of the country, safely to Poland.
Poland did not return the children to Norway, but decided not to violate Article 8 of human rights. The Polish judiciary conducted its own investigation and the children stated that they wanted to stay with their parents. Not long ago, Poland refused to hand over a child to the Swedish state after he and his father had fled Sweden and sought asylum in Poland. It went so far that Adrianna Warchol, consul of the Polish embassy in Norway, was fired when she compared Norwegian childcare to Hitler’s Youth. In 2015, Czech President Milos Zeman also compared Norwegian childcare to the Nazi programme. Zeman told of two boys that Norwegian childcare took away from their mother and placed them with Norwegian families, stating that the mother is not even allowed to speak Czech with her children.
The Russian Ombudsman for Children Pavel Astaklov also accused Norway of ‘child terrorism’ in 2014 due to several cases where Norwegian childcare took in children with Russian origins. The Norwegian Ministry had to hold several information meetings with foreign embassies in Norway and distributed information leaflets in several languages on child protection in Norway. These brochures claim that Norwegian child care is of a very high standard. But after all we have explained, and after the rulings of the European Court of Justice that Norway is violating human rights, this claim is paradoxical. And what we have recounted in these lines is only the surface of the iceberg.
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