25 July 2015

Deficient rule of law in child protection cases in Norway

By Bjorn Bjoro

                                      – With present day practice,
                                      the CWS can get away with
                                      not acting in the
                                      best interest of the child.

Bjorn Bjoro (Bjørn Bjøro) is a consultant, previously in the employ of the Norwegian Child Welfare Services (CWS)*.
   This article was first published in Norwegian, with the title
Mangelfull rettssikkerhet in the newspaper Vårt Land on 16th July 2015 and on the website Verdidebatt.no on the same day.
   The English version is published here with the kind consent of the author.

"The counties break the law" was the telling title of an article in the newspaper
Vårt Land on 30 June, in the paper's coverage of the report from Riksrevisjonen (Office of the Auditor General of Norway) about the county committees which handle decisions involving compulsory measures and force in child protection cases. The National Audit Office's report, however, by and large limits itself to considering the long time it takes before the cases are processed, cf The county social welfare boards take too long to process child welfare cases.

The Audit Office, then, only takes up a limited part of the activities of the county committees (
fylkesnemndene, called "the county social welfare boards" in the above article). Even so, the report shows that "the ministry does not ask for information which can reveal whether the quality of case handling in the county committees is satisfactory and creates trust, in the way required by the Child Welfare Act"(my translation)**. Certainly a serious matter, given that the Child Welfare Act §7-3 states explicitly that the case procedures of the county committees must be satisfactory and quick and must create confidence.

Oxford Research has recently carried out an analysis of part of the operation of the county committees. In an appendix to the report, informant reports by 12 parents relate their meetings with the county committees. The reports of how these parents have experienced the "rule of law" in actual practice in the county committees are not edifying reading. And they do not create confidence.

Regrettably, the scene presented agrees with my own experiences after having worked for 10 years in the Child Welfare Services (CWS) and later having acted as advisor in some child protection cases.

A lot of good work is carried out in the CWS but unfortunately too much of what is done is characterised by sundry opinions held by sosial workers and by weak professional competence. When the Child Welfare Services think they have a basis for considering taking over custody – and often before this stage – it is usual for the CWS to omit, systematically, positive aspects from their documents, thereby distorting reality by including as much as possible of whatever is negative.

In this way an incomplete and systematically skewed evidential picture is built up. The county committee is presented with this lopsided written material. Formally a county committee is a public body resembling a court. But usually there is no scrutinising of the evidence presented to find the truth behind what amounts to systematic manipulation. On the whole, the presentation of purported evidence is enough. The county committees therefore fall down fundamentally in guarding any rule of law. The seeming guardianship of due process is actually just formal, almost without any reality.

This is exacerbated by the practice of the CWS of engaging psychologists to write expert reports, psychologists whose relationship to the CWS becomes one of economic dependency. Many of them distort reality in the way they believe the buyer – the CWS – wants it to be for presentation in the county committee.

The contribution of a county committee is that of very rarely, and only to a superficial degree, engaging in depth in exposing the systematic manipulations and distortions. Anything like that is, by the way, a comprehensive and resource-demanding process. When considering whether to take a particular case to the county committee, the CWS often look to whether a decision in their favour in this case can increase the likelihood of their getting away with other pending cases too. When they are not given any necessary correction by the county committee, one result is that they do not mend their ways in other cases, but instead continue, on the basis of their experience.

With present day practice, the CWS can get away with
not acting in the best interest of the child. The Child Welfare Services also get away with it when they choose not to use linkworkers and cultural bridge builders and do not reduce conflicts to achieve real and positive cooperation in the best interest of mother and children alike. Instead, the CWS choose, to a far too great extent, to plan for a breaking off of the biological bond between mother and child, and they are supported in taking over custody in the county committees.

Recently, 151 professionals have sent a letter of alarm about the Child Welfare Services to Solveig Horne, the Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion. There is good reason for their alarm. A ray of light is that the Minister has taken the criticism seriously and there will be an effort to examine many aspects of the child protection system, including the question of rule of law.

– –

*  The official English title of the Norwegian government service handling child protection is the Child Welfare Services (CWS)
Wikipedia: Child Welfare Services (Norway))

**  The Child Welfare Act is the law covering child protection.