19 March 2019

Johannes Idsø, associate professor:

Child welfare and the abuse of power

• • •
Johannes Idsø works in the Department of Business Administration at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences (Høgskulen på Vestlandet), location Sogndal.
    The Norwegian original of this article was first published on 5 March 2019, and has been re-published
here. This English translation is published here with the author's generous cooperation.
• • •

A few months ago, in November 2018, I was contacted by a young woman. A health nurse at Sogndal Health Centre in western Norway had sent a message of concern to The Child Welfare Services and the young woman was subsequently summoned to a meeting with Sogn Child Welfare Services (In Norwegian: Sogn
Barnevern. The name of the local Child Welfare Services ). She was very insecure and did not know what to do. In the request for a meeting, the main points of concern were stated as follows:

  The mother struggles with setting limits;
  There is a lack of follow-up of the child;
  There is a lack of focus on the child; and
  The mother has turned down low threshold parental guidance
        offered by the municipality.

Struggling with setting limits? It is correct that, during a consultation, the mother had been asked whether she found it difficult to say no to the child, to which she had replied that sometimes this could be challenging. However, she was completely unprepared for the health nurse concluding, based on her answer, that ‘the mother struggles with setting boundaries’ and raising this as a matter of concern with Sogn Child Welfare Services. Besides, who can determine what are the correct boundaries in relation to a small child who is not yet two years old?

The child had been taken to baby swimming lessons, there were trips to the Lustrabadet swimming facility and playgrounds, as well as forest and field walks, and playing with other children. The claim of ‘a lack of follow-up’ had no bearing on reality.

Furthermore, concerning the allegation of ‘lack of focus on the child’, in the journal kept by Sogndal Health Centre it is stated that the mother focused too much on the child.

It is true that the mother had turned down ‘low threshold guidance’. She had read that guidance of this sort is voluntary and did not know at the time that declining a voluntary offer would be considered suspicious and confirm her supposed need of the offer.

The mother had discussed various topics with the health nurse and eventually had lost confidence in the nurse. Since being affiliated with the health centre is voluntary and since the mother had lost confidence in the nurse, she chose to take the child to a general practitioner for the two-year health check. This was not acceptable, she was told. According to the health centre, a consultation with a general practitioner was not as good as a health check performed by the health centre.

Only days after the mother and child had been to the doctor – who found the child to be in good health – Sogndal Health Centre sent a message of concern to Sogn Child Welfare Services. This message was sent by a health nurse who had never seen the child. The county governor has since introduced a supervision case against this health nurse. However, the matter has still not be concluded.

The mother is now facing the following difficulty: The Child Welfare Services considers the case an emergency issue that requires a quick response. She was told that before the meeting they had decided to initiate an investigation with a home inspection (The Child Welfare Services calls this a ‘home visit’), including observations of the interaction between the mother and child.

To initiate an investigation, there must be a reason. We tried to get The Child Welfare Services to tell us what the reason was in this case. Was it the lack of boundaries or the lack of focus? We received the following explanation: Child Welfare Services has received so much criticism in the media. Besides, we were told, ‘We don’t know the child’s mother.’

In relation to the mother, Sogn Child Welfare Services is threatening to institute care orders. A two-year-old, issues with boundary setting, resulting in care orders: It is not to be believed, but this is the case.

Unfortunately, the case mentioned above is not unique, either locally or nationally. Locally, referring to the Bratteteig case (mentioned in
Sogn Avis on February 23, 2019) should be enough. At the national level, massive criticism has been levelled against The Child Welfare Services. Two hundred and fifty professionals (doctors, psychologists, lawyers, etc.) have signed a national report expressing concern about the methods and many offences of Child Welfare Services. This report was handed to the authorities in 2015, but to date the Norwegian Parliament has not reacted in any significant manner.

Human rights lawyer Gro Hillestad Thune, with 17 years’ experience as a judge of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, has made the following statement about The Child Welfare Services (
Aftenposten, 30.3 2017):

‘Children are exposed every day, all over the country, to serious misunderstanding and abuse of power, often in violation of the fundamental rights that are afforded to them by Parliament through the Human Rights Act and section 104 of the Constitution.’

Sogndal municipality has an agreement with a company that calls itself Child Welfare Competence Ltd (Barnevernkompetanse AS). One of the consultants in the above case was engaged by this company. Offering child welfare services has become big business. According to the Brønnøysund Register Centre, Child Welfare Competence Ltd had seven employees in 2017, a year in which the two owners laughed all the way to the bank: The company’s annual profit after taxes was 5.7 million NOK, which corresponds to a profit of 823,000 NOK per employee. The employees of Child Welfare Competence Ltd also earned more than most public employees. The manager’s salary was NOK 1.5 million and the average salary per person for the remaining six employees was approximately NOK 1.2 million (including social costs). It is not hard to imagine that consultants of these types of companies have a private financial motivation for maintaining extensive involvement with Child Welfare Services and for that reason choose to investigate issues that should have been dropped.

Child Welfare Services is a closed system and few or no persons have access to the decisions that are made. The employees can therefore feel confident that no one is going to monitor their work or ask questions about their decisions. Child Welfare Services has wide powers and cases are often settled on the basis of the subjective guesswork of incompetent people. Gro Hillestad Thune has stated (
Aftenposten, 9.9.15): ‘At times there is a disturbing discrepancy between the competence of Child Welfare Services and the authority this agency has been entrusted with to exercise power over families.’

In the judicial system, a defense lawyer is appointed for even the smallest crook, but when faced with Child Welfare Services, which in many contexts acts as both prosecutor and police, the parents stand alone. There is weak legal protection for families who come into contact with this agency. It is time for politicians to wake up and do something about Child Welfare Services, both nationally and in Sogn.