The Child Welfare Services in Norway and Migration

The recent demonstrations against Norway’s Child Welfare Service (Barnevernet), in Oslo and outside Norwegian embassies abroad, express the deep frustration and fear felt by some parents with immigrant background. In recent years this frustration has received increased attention both in Norway and internationally. The international diplomatic repercussions of this crisis of confidence between the Child Welfare Service and families with immigrant background reveal how this is not purely a domestic matter, although it concerns children in Norway.


Lithuanians demonstrating outside the Norwegian Embassy in London 30 May, protesting against the Norwegian Child Welfare Service (Barnevernet). Foto: Espen Aas/NRK

Frode Forfang, director general of the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, is concerned about the involvement of the Child Welfare Service with asylum seekers, in cases where parents are deprived of custody of their children. This raises broader questions about the evaluation of a child’s best interests in a migration context.

International attention to child welfare cases in Norway involving immigrant families, in countries such as Lithuania, Poland and India, underline migrants’ links not only to Norway as immigrants, but also to their countries of origin, as emigrants. For instance, Lithuanian television has run a series of reports on child welfare cases in Norway. Polish television viewers have followed a private detective who removes children from the custody of the Child Welfare Service in Norway and takes them to Poland. Several reports in Polish newspapers have featured interviews with Norwegian defence counsel and parents involved in child welfare proceedings. In some countries, parents’ fear of Norway’s Child Welfare Service has become a foreign policy issue.

I have conducted research among people with Polish and Pakistani background in Norway, and have written about their lack of confidence in the Norwegian authorities, where their fear of the Child Welfare Service’s is central. When conducting interviews about completely different topics I heard stories, rumours and ideas about the Child Welfare Service. The parents I spoke to made it very clear that they fear the system. They feel they have little legal protection, and experience alienation. As a researcher and mother, with immigrant background myself, these parents asked me questions about the legal framework within which the Child Welfare Service operates, about statistics concerning the Child Welfare Service and cases involving families with immigrant background, and about confidence in the system. They saw the service as representing a system that might deprive you – arbitrarily – of your children. This was a recurring theme among people with different educational and work experiences. However, there are clear differences between different minority populations regarding levels of trust in institutions such as the Child Welfare Service, with major factors being length of residence in Norway, language skills, and system competence.

The people I interviewed did not deny that there are situations where children may need protection, even against their own parents. However, this understanding was often overshadowed by fear. This fear subsequently affected their interactions with health services, kindergartens or schools. For instance, they were afraid that information about them – such as comments made at a health centre about the difficulties of settling in a new country – might be retained and used against them later. There is little to suggest that the challenges of fear and distrust have been resolved since my research in 2012. The impact of such a crisis of confidence is serious for the Child Welfare Service, as well as for other institutions Beyond this, the situation is also serious with regard to our approach to encounters with the Norwegian state among people of immigrant background, and the extent to which the state’s communication measures can be said to be successful.

An approach that fails to take account of the fact that migration has both domestic and foreign policy aspects is inadequate. Just as Norway comes to the assistance of Norwegian citizens abroad, other states also seek to assist their own citizens in other countries. The nature of the assistance offered differs between countries, and accordingly affects different groups of immigrants in Norway in different ways. But many countries of origin are getting involved. For example, there have been meetings involving Indian diplomats, and the Norwegian Child Welfare Service has been the subject of parliamentary discussions in several European countries.

At the same time, lack of confidence in the Child Welfare Service is not confined to people with an immigrant background. Institutions like the Child Welfare Service are fundamentally dependent on public confidence, in that their working methods are lawful and reasonable. Emphasizing the fact that this lack of confidence is shared by people without immigrant background is important in order to avoid suspicion of discrimination. Such suspicion is widespread, and steps need to be taken to counter the fear of discrimination.

The most vulnerable children, those who need the protection of the Child Welfare Service, should be the focus of all adults working in this area. At the same time, parents must feel confident that as long as they comply with Norwegian law, a family history involving migration is not in itself a risk. The interaction of attachments to several societies can be experienced differently. But this is not a zero-sum game: the same person can have diverse attachments and identities. Being a parent is an arena where this comes to the surface, as one both lives out and nurtures old roots, while at the same time putting down and strengthening new roots. There must be space for this, because Norwegian immigrants belong here too. Accordingly the Norwegian approach to pluralism – living together with respect for cultural, linguistic and other differences – must be developed together. This is important, because a democratic society is dependent on trust in institutions such as the Child Welfare Service. The continuing crisis of confidence between the Child Welfare Service and sections of the immigrant population, despite the service’s work on confidence-building and communication, underscores that the issue at hand is not one about the Child Welfare Service in isolation.

  • This text was published in Norwegian in the daily Vårt Land 6 June: Når foreldre frykter staten.
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