In Norway: State v/s parents
Last month a film released in theatres here recounting an immigrant Indian mother’s struggle to win back the custody of her children from the Norwegian foster care system. The box office returns in India have not been so enthusing, but it is the most watched South Asian film in Norway and has articulated the tussle of mostly immigrant parents against childcare services in Nordic and European countries. The Norwegian Embassy in India has dismissed the film based on the 2022 book “The Journey of a Mother” by Sagarika Chakraborty as a “fictional representation” of the case that was resolved a decade ago in cooperation with Indian authorities. And noted that the reason for placing children in alternative care is only if they are subjected to “neglect, violence or other forms of abuse.” Regardless of the dismissal, the film “Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway” has drawn attention to the many custody battles that are going on between parents and childcare services. One of them is the current confrontation between Berlin Child Services and the Shah family.
Cultural differences in raising children seem to be among the reasons for the State stepping into homes and taking away children. It is a matter that has been raised in the Shah vs Germany case
The case was taken up with Germany in December 2022 when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar raised the issue with his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock. “We have concerns that the child should be in her linguistic, religious, cultural and social environment. This is her right. And our embassy is pursuing the matter with the German authorities, but it was also a subject which I had brought up with the minister,” he had said at a joint media briefing.
Cultural differences in raising children seem to be among the reasons for the State stepping into homes and taking away children. It is a matter that has been raised in the Shah vs Germany case. “The German child services are completely insensitive to the baby’s cultural and religious identity, insisting on a meat diet for her though she comes from an observant Jain family” says an online petition “Save Ariha” by the child’s parents who are engaged in a struggle to get their daughter back from Germany. Ariha Shah is a little over the age of two.
A total of 52 judgements have been passed against Norway throughout the Court’s history. These high numbers show the country’s failure to safeguard the right to family life in child welfare cases
The toddler has spent most of this time in the care of Berlin Child Services which last month filed a civil custody case to terminate the parental rights of Dhara and Bhavesh Shah, her mother and father. Ariha was taken away on a suspicion of sexual abuse, following what the family says is an accidental injury while in her paternal grandmother’s care. That was referred to doctors who in turn called in the child services. The worried parents have said in the online petition, that the lawsuit could go on for two or three years giving child services the advantage of the “continuity principle” of the law in Germany under which if a child has spent a significant time with the state-appointed carer, it is said to be settled there and should not be shifted back to the parents, even if they are found to be fit.”
Figures from Destatis, the German national statistics agency, show that 77,645 children and young people were in State care in 2015-16. In contemporary Germany with its population of over 83 million, there are 50,364 children and young people living in family foster care. Norway has as many as 12000 children living in State and foster care, a rather high number for a population of not more than 5,5 million. This draws from concerns that place the rights of the child above all else.
There are many cases of couples finding that the ways in which they were brought up in their home countries and the mix of tradition, culture, religion and language woven into their parenting methods may not meet a different set of Western standards
Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal offer the best family-friendly policies among 31 rich countries according to a new UNICEF report based on their national family-friendly policies. This report focuses on two key policies: childcare leave for parents and early childhood education and care for preschool children. It reviews these policies in the 41 high- and middle-income countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development(OECD)and European Union (EU). Among the most family-friendly countries, Norway, in 1981, was the first to appoint a child ombudsman, to protect the rights of the child.
Yet Norway also faces a disproportionately high number of child welfare cases and a number of them, fiercely contested by parents, have found their way before the European Court of Human Rights. The Court has deemed as central Article 8 of the human rights convention, which covers the right to respect for private and family life. In recent years, the ECtHR has accepted 39 cases involving the Norwegian Child Welfare Services for hearing. Of the nine cases the Court has ruled on, a violation of the right to family life has been found in seven cases. A total of 52 judgements have been passed against Norway throughout the Court’s history. These high numbers show the country’s failure to safeguard the right to family life in child welfare cases.
A kind of family ombudsman in embassies could be a guide and referral point for Indian parents in order to prevent visits from child welfare services that may not end well
According to BBC, as the Norwegian media began investigating a story it has ignored, it has been found that children with a foreign mother are four times more likely than other children in Norway to be forcibly taken from their families. A Norwegian-Chinese couple have had their baby taken away with questions over parenting which include the time the child spent with her Chinese maternal grandmother after birth, a common practice in Asian countries. Critics say Barnevernet, the Norwegian Child Welfare Services agency, is too quick to remove the children of immigrants. In the 2011 removal of two children from their Czech parents due to allegations of sexual abuse, the parents were eventually exonerated but the State refused to return the children and has now terminated their parental rights. The workings of child welfare in Norway prompted strong criticism from former Czech President Milos Zeman. Heads of State of Poland and Romania have also voiced disapproval in cases involving their nationals.
In the old days a raised hand or stern words could settle tantrums and boisterous behaviour. Today that kind of solution may place the child in State custody in some countries where the rights of the child are clearly defined and slip-ups or what is seen as “violence” could result in the State intervening in raising your children. There are many cases of couples finding that the ways in which they were brought up in their home countries and the mix of tradition, culture, religion and language woven into their parenting methods may not meet a different set of Western standards.
The problems that arise often require government intervention. Like the issues flagged by Indian migrant workers in the Gulf. For instance, when Prime Minister Modi toured the Gulf countries in 2018 there were demands, especially by workers, for support from home. The Indian diaspora, largest in the world and topmost contributors to home remittances, wanted steps to improve job security in host countries through intervention from the Indian government. There were suggestions about setting up a Philippine model of insurance for migrant workers through enacted laws. The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 and later amendments have ensured regulated recruitment fees, compulsory insurance and other social, economic and legal support to migrant Filipino workers.
In cases of families on work stints abroad, it may help if the Central government intervened by providing counselling and support through Indian embassies well before parenting runs into trouble, especially in Nordic and European countries. A kind of family ombudsman in embassies could be a guide and referral point for Indian parents in order to prevent visits from child welfare services that may not end well.
(The writer is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press)