The UN rates Norway one of the best countries for a child to grow up in. And yet too many children, according to a large number of Norwegian experts, are taken into care without good reason. The conviction of a top psychiatrist in the child protection system for downloading child abuse images is now raising further serious questions.
It was a winter’s day, some years ago, when two child welfare specialists – a female psychologist and a male psychiatrist – knocked on the door of a small modern wooden house on the edge of the Norwegian capital, Oslo.
A lively little girl opened the door and greeted the strangers warmly.
But the girl’s mother, Cecilie – who understood the purpose of their visit – was much less pleased to see them.
“I was very scared. I didn’t want them in my house in the first place,” she says, remembering that day.
“I was really nervous that they will find something wrong. I know this is how the Child Protection Services take away children.”
The experts had been appointed to write a report for a family court hearing which would decide the little girl’s future.
Their visit followed years of concern by the Child Protection Service that Cecilie - a single mother - wasn’t looking after her daughter properly, and had rejected offers of help.
That day, she was right to be nervous.
The experts were highly critical of what they observed at her home.
They wrote in their report that “there was no natural flow to the interaction” between mother and daughter.
They said Cecilie struggled to keep the house in order. And they commented on other details that Cecilie believes they misinterpreted.
“Everything is twisted in a negative way,” she says.
“This was not so long after Christmas, and in the local store I had found some gingerbread which they were selling really cheap, for one Norwegian krone. So I bought it just for fun, so that my daughter and I could make some gingerbread men together as an activity.
“But apparently they thought my financial situation was very bad, because I had bought it after Christmas… How can you say a person is poor just because they buy cheap gingerbread?
“When I saw the report, I was so devastated. It was just all this negativity - negative, negative, negative. There was nothing positive at all.”
The experts’ report – based on information from many health and childcare professionals as well as their own observations – concluded that the little girl’s “development would be limited” if she remained with her mother.
The report said: “This is because the mother does not recognise her daughter’s basic needs and does not perceive the mental harm she may have suffered” while in her mother’s care.
Since then, Cecilie – a lean, anxious-looking, blonde woman now in her 50s - has only seen her daughter seven times.
“I have not been able to follow her development,” she says. “I just lost my daughter’s childhood. I don’t expect really to see her until she’s an adult.”
The recommendation to put the girl into long-term foster care was approved at Oslo District Court. The report’s co-authors attended as witnesses.
Fast forward to April this year, and one of those two experts – the male psychiatrist - reappeared in the same courthouse.
This time, though, he wasn’t in the witness stand.
He was in the dock.
He was sentenced to 22 months in jail - after admitting he had downloaded nearly 200,000 images, and more than 12,000 videos, showing the sexual abuse or sexualisation of children…
His conviction puts the spotlight back on a system which has been heavily criticised by some parents – and by leading Norwegian professionals in the childcare field – for being too quick to put children into care, splitting families unnecessarily…
The criticisms of the Norwegian Child Protection Service date back some years. Two years ago I reported on the case of Ruth and Marius Bodnariu, evangelical Christians who were accused in 2015 of breaking the law by smacking their children. Their five children – including a small baby – were put into emergency care, prompting demonstrations by sympathisers around the world.
The children were eventually returned to their parents – but the family then decided to leave Norway. They now live in Marius’s home country, Romania…
n the same year, 2015, more than 140 professionals in the childcare field – lawyers, psychologists and social workers, wrote a National Notice of Concern to the government. They said that “a long list of children – the actual number is not known by anyone – are exposed to serious failures of understanding and infringements of their rights.”
They added that “when expert witnesses submit their reports and give evidence in court, we often see that the observational basis upon which they report is very weak.”
That open letter has now been signed by a further 120 specialists. Meanwhile, a family involved in a custody battle with the state has won a rare legal victory, gaining the right to have its case heard later this year at the highest level of the European Court of Human Rights…
But Inez – who’s now become a campaigner for family rights – regards the silence over the convicted psychiatrist as a cover-up.
She and other parents who’ve lost children are also surprised by a family court decision that the disgraced expert can keep custody of his own young children.
“I’m at a loss for words, for the outrage,” she says, “knowing other parents who have had lesser allegations and have lost children.”
Thore Langfeldt, a psychologist who works with sex offenders, and who gave testimony as an independent expert in the case of the convicted psychiatrist, regards that reaction as “moral outrage”.
He says there is no evidence to suggest that people who download child pornography are more likely than anyone else to commit other offences against children.
“Sometimes moral panic takes over and empirical psychological data vanish on us,” he says.
But Inez, who has been active in her community as a local politician and lay judge, says the case has changed the way she views her own country.
“Before 2013 I considered Norway as the best country in the world. And in many aspects it still is a good country. But if the system is closed and there is no transparency, then it is so much easier to sweep things under the carpet when things go wrong,” she says.
“There has to be a willingness to fix things, because it ensures that people can trust the system.”
Courtesy of a colleague