Grey areas of democracy: when law and order push the limits Pixabay

Each member state of the European Union has behind itself a long way marked by fight for peace, freedom and democracy. Most of us would not even presume that in united Europe the question of basic human rights may be in danger. Surprisingly, the child protection policy in such countries as Norway and Germany seems to be quite disturbing.

Each single day we are shocked by outrageous news of human rights exploitation, child abuse or undemocratic measures employed in countries all over the world. Though we may have some reservations as to the functioning of the national governments in Europe, it would be mind-boggling for us to discover that too much law and order may actually have a reverse effect on our security, especially when it comes to our dearest ones, our children.

Although the first signals that something was wrong, appeared some time ago, the issue did not receive a broad media coverage. However, the recurrent cases of immigrant parents losing the custody over their children in Norway (by the decision of Barnevernet, a children protection office) and in Germany (Jugendamt) raised the question whether in the case of parent vs. state confrontation the well-being of a child is always at stake. If it is, then why so much controversy?

The tyranny of goodness

The issue of Barnevernet abusing its competencies has heavily influenced the public debate in Poland as there have been numerous cases of Polish parents (Polish people form the biggest immigrant minority in Norway) reporting the unjust way of acting on part of the Norwegian children's office. And justly so, as the policy of Barnevernet seems to be targeted at immigrant families (often Polish and Turkish ones) which may have different patterns of behavior and convictions as to the rearing of a child, which are being ''misinterpreted'' in Norway.

Having studied the case of a Polish family from Stavanger, professor Nina Witoszek, who has been living in Oslo for many years now, started a media war when she published her article in Aftenposten where she presented a scathing criticism of Barnevernet. In her view, the immigrant parents should keep in mind four basic principles if they want to avoid confrontation with this ''Stalin-like'' institution: 1. Your children don't belong to you. They belong to the state, 2. You mustn't smack your children, 3. Do your best to make your children smile in public, 4. Don't you think that you mean anything. 

This unambiguous opinion brought a quick reaction from Sara Azmeh Rasmussen, a Norwegian ethinic minorities activist, who assured that the Norwegian state has no intention whatsoever of ''kidnapping'' children. She claims that the majority of immigrant families form a lower middle class, a milieu in which children have to grow up deprived of fair chances of development. In her opinion, the vulgarisation of the public debate has resulted in that Barnevernet became myth-ridden and that the slanders directed at the institution are often uttered by uneducated (not to say illiterate) and aggressive parents. Barnevernet is the only way out for the children.

Fair enough, yet many Polish families which felt the Barnevernet's breath on their neck, did not stay silent. A good example of this is a Polish documentary film Barnevernet: child hunting which depicts stories of Polish families which were separated from their children. Surprisingly enough, many of them seem so serious and trustworthy that one keeps asking yourself the same question: why them? Some claim it is the cultural differences between Norway and other countries. While in the rest of the world light corporal punishment is perceived as normal or is at least a matter of a given family as long as it is not abuse, in Norway the corporal punishment is strongly associated with child or sexual abuse. Another issue, which makes the seemingly benevolent actions of Barnevernet less transparent is its way of proceeding. Children are often taken away from their families in the course of an immediate intervention which may be triggered by a sole denunciation from a ''preoccupied'' neighbor. The interviews are often conducted in questionable conditions (e.g. the case of questioning an autistic child). As they are assumedly guilty, parents usually have no say. The conclusions are drawn on the basis of a conversation with a child (always in the Norwegian language). The same issues were reported by immigrant Tamil families which claimed that showing an intense affection to a child may be interpreted as sexual abuse and the traditional Indian dishes may be perceived as unhealthy, thus giving Barnevernet the right to intervene.

Evil business?

The German counterpart of Barnevernet, Jugendamt, may boast a similar track record of stories. Mixed marriages, the alleged ''germanisation'' of children, chasing families which try to escape and placing children in stepfamilies by force. Arguments of both sides and accusations of discrimination are hard to balance out, especially when patriotic feelings and personal issues are at play. Nevertheless, there are some disturbing signals coming and it often results that there are surprisingly many similarities between Barnevernet and Jugendamt. One of them is that both institutions are extremely powerful, which helps them function independently, above the law. Their decisions are irrevocable, which deprives parents of the right to fair trial. Moreover, in both cases concerns were raised as to whether both institutions are abusing its power, taking children away from their families and commanding them to live with complete strangers or, worse, placing them in children's homes or psychiatric care. Why so cruel? Though not clear, ''one theory behind these actions may be money'', reads an article on CBN. But even more probable explanation is that these institutions are relics of the past operating on outdated principles which, unless reviewed, will be giving the representatives of these offices the power to continue.

In cases such as these the truth often lies in between. But even though the ambiguous practices of children rights offices may duly raise concerns over their true intentions, parents are often powerless in the confrontation. This is no more a question of fighting Barnevernet or Jugendamt, this is rather a question of how long they will go unpunished, interfering with most intimate spheres of citizens' lives.

Edited by: Lisa Enocsson