«Forgive them, because they don’t know what they do». I peek into the hallway of the woman who lost all her kids to the Norwegian Child Protection Service, called “Barnevernet”, just before our national day 17th of May last year. Their shoes are still there, labels with their names ironed on the inside. “She probably can’t bear to remove them”, I’m thinking. Silently I ask myself how much too small those shoes will be, when – or if – the children are allowed to come home.
One after one, the childrenhave stood alone in court, courtcase after courtcase, and asked to come home. This mother is the last trace of family they’ve got here, as she is a widow who has escaped from Iraq. All of the siblings, except two, were put in different locations. All the time since they were removed, they have cried and pled. They have offered Barnevernet money. They have drawn faces covered with tears. Barnevernet reports that the children are «crying, but mostly when they see their mother».
And the mother loves her children. That is even confirmed by Barnevernet, and by the judges in court. However, they express doubt whether she is able to give her children “emotional support”. A professional term which is accepted without question by the judges, and which bends them towards their tragical conclusion: the mother is not fit. Nobody seems to think that “love” and “emotional support” are related in some way. Love is obviously not given much credit.
Norwegian Standard, abbreviated NS
There’s a new documentary about Barnevernet in the making, called «Norwegian Standard». The abbreviated is NS – which was also the name that the Norwegian Nazi party during the war, “Nasjonal Samling”, went under. So I’m tempted to search for similarities between the Norwegian system and the Nazi regime. What I find is the lack of love. Love means nothing. Intellectual and professional constructions legitimize brutal violations by the bureaucrats, who are merely “doing their job”. Is it unpleasant to remove children from their families? Sure. At least until you get used to it.
«I understand that you miss your children», the employee from Barnevernet purrs to the devastated mother, “but the children are very well taken care of. Two of them are living together in a huge, modern house. They are successful at school. Their new parents are not working, so they can take care of the children all the time.”
What a poor relief to the mother, that the new parents don’t need to work for a living, and that they have such a nice, big house.
Barnevernet seems to have a preference for people with high socio-economic status when it comes to choosing who are suited as parents for the children of the Norwegian state. This mother, like so many others, has been accused of being too poor.
Another alternative favoured by Barnevernet is to select foster parents for whom they create good economic conditions by paying them rather generously. To aspiring foster parents, Barnevernet is a most lucrative opportunity. In several cases, foster parents have been paid for their new «needs» such as an extra car, or renovation of their house, with the new child as leverage. They’re also granted the use of extra, temporary step-in foster parents, who take care of the child during holidays.
More tempting still is the offer of the equivalent of a full salary, so that one foster parent can stay home and ensure good care of the child.
The economic advantages of being a foster parent are heavily advertised by the state, regardless of the fact that it may attract people with other motives than to love a child like their own. The state is in desperate need of foster homes. On average, the state removes 5 children from their parents every day – in one of the smallest countries in the world.
The Norwegian professor Tove Stang-Dahl has done research on the history of Barnevernet. Her conclusion is this: “In an uninterrupted line from the end of the 18th century and right until this day, the explicit goal of Barnevernet has been to weaken the power and freedom of the family.The premise has been the same the whole time: to exert social control over the groups in society who are, at any point in time, seen as a threat against social order.”
The dark depths of our human mind
Last year, the mother had hoped to celebrate Christmas with her children. Barnevernet refused, and told her to deliver her gifts at their office, for professional distribution to each child. This Christmas, she has lost any hope of seeing her children. Barnevernet won’t give her more than what the judges said: 4 times a year, 1,5 hour each time, supervised. That means there has to be an observer from Barnevernet, who can’t leave the mother and child alone at any moment – not even in the bathroom. An interpreter is also there, to translate everything they say to each other.
To the victims, it may seem like Barnevernet, with its unlimited power to destroy the lives of individuals, experiences a subtle joy in doing exactly that. Unfortunately, I believe it’s a human trait:
The famous Stanford experiment illustrates this. 21mentally healthy persons were randomly given roles as «prisoners» or «guards», and placed in a prison-like locale. The guards were instructed to «keep order», nothing else – and psychologists were to observe what happened. The experiment was meant to last 2 weeks, but had to be stopped after 6 days, because of how the guards abused the prisoners, harassing them psychologically and forcing them to do humiliating things. Bythe end of the 6 days, a third of the guards were believed to have developed sadistic traits.
In our human minds, the same psychological mechanisms are latent. And they will flourish if the power structure allows them to.
Norwegian law on children – breeding ground for abuse
It heads the wrong way. Before, the law said that children should live with their biological parents, if possible. In 2012, this law was reformulated. Now, they have the «right» to grow up with people who can provide the best conditions materially and mentally. The children are to be «good and productive citizens, for the nation’s best», the law says.
This sentence reminds me of Nazi perfectionism. It can justify almost any abduction from parents with lower socio-economic status. We have to ask which values are the most important. The love of the parents, or the development of «productive citizens»?
A Christmas wish
«Forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.» I’m writing Christmas cards. Thinking of my friends, and my enemies, and of the ones whom it might be time to forgive.
And I think of my new friend from abroad, who’s sticking to me as if clutching at a straw. Because I’m Norwegian, probably. But who am I against Barnevernet? The people there have developed a very thick shell. In a system where cruel decisions are a part of their everyday job, they will not bend to any appeal for empathy.They don’t listen to anybody – not even doctors, nurses, or psychologists who sometimes very openly disagree with their decisions to separate a family, based on their own observations of that family. I’m really nothing more than a straw in this field, a field ravaged by storms of prejudices and by a past most of us are ignorant of.
Can one really forgive, without the other party admitting and changing anything? It seems that for politicians and for Barnevernet, it is difficult to admit that something has gone wrong. They seldom talk about the pain inflicted upon children and parents. I’ve rarely seen anything coming close to a real debate, without all the justifications for Barnevernet being brought up again and again. When in reality, noone disagrees that in some serious cases, children should be taken away and be given another home.
This is being used to overshadow all those children who maybe needed some help, but absolutely not of that kind. Now, they’re being traumatized for life – for absolutely no other good reason than to protect the one who made the wrong decision in the first place. What about all their calls and crying for their true home and parents, without anybody paying attention to it? The brutality of these acts – and the numbers of them – are rarely mentioned. Some lawyers have estimated those cases to represent around 80% of all the children being forcibly displaced.
So, I’m not ready to forgive Barnevernet yet. The snow that fell last year, is still falling down – and nothing seems to change things, as long as we have a trust-based system where the employees from Barnevernet can do what they want. They can command the police to take a child any time. Even if they make a wrong decision, it still can take months and years before the children are returned to their family – if ever.
Instead of forgiveness, I have a Christmas wish. I wish that people would open their eyes to what’s happening. The actions of the Norwegian Barnevernet will forever be remembered by the rest of the world, as our acts, my acts. Every Norwegian should understand how easily one can lose a child to the Norwegian state – and try to care a little bit about how they want this country to be.
This is my Christmas wish, so that I might regain some pride in my country. All the time since the 17th of May celebration last year, I have only been ashamed. During the celebration at our school, my daughter told me the news about the girl in her class being removed. I went to look for the mother in the crowd, while two girls talked in the microphone of how lucky we are in Norway. «Not many countries have as fair and humane laws as Norway», they said. But I know of no country where the mother has less ofa right to express love and to care for what comes from her own womb.
I have a life which the immigrant woman would have done anything to get: I’ll celebrate Christmas, happy to be with my children. As it isfor any other parent, there have been incidents or errors that could have separated usforever, had they been judged by the wrong person.
But my red-coloured tablecloth, delicious food, my decorations and Christmas-red curtains can’t match the memory of the pale red shoes in the home of a woman who is not taking part in our celebration. The red shoes will always be lying there, in my consciousness, empty of children’s feet.
By Ragna Heffermehl