One of the first things you notice about Norway when you visit is how beautiful it is. But there is a very dark side of Norway that most of the world knows nothing about. It's called Barnevernet, and it can be as cold and brutal as the Norwegian winter.
Barnevernet means "child welfare." It's Norway's network of local child protection service offices. But to its victims, Barnevernet means anything but protecting children.
'Barnevernet' Takes American Children
After moving to Norway from Atlanta for her husband's employment, American mother Natalya Shutakova's three American-born children were taken by Barnevernet two months ago for alleged child mistreatment.
Shutakova and her Lithuanian husband were jailed for 24 hours and told they could get two years in prison for discussing the case. They're waiting to hear if they will lose custody of their children for good. All three are American citizens.
Foreign Families at Special Risk
Foreigners living in Norway seem especially at risk of having their children taken by Barnevernet.
Video on YouTube shows police tackling Kai Kristiansen outside his home while his mother films it and pleads, "Would someone please help us. Barnevernet is here in our home and they're trying to take our son. I'm Canadian."
Barnvernet moved in after the Kristiansens started homeschooling Kai because he received death threats at school.
It was Barnevernet that took the five children from Romanian and Norwegian parents Marius and Ruth Bodnariu in 2016.
Barnevernet claimed the reason was that the parents were spanking. But an investigation revealed the real reason was officials believed the children were being 'indoctrinated' into Christianity by their parents. Worldwide outrage forced the Norwegian government to return the children. The Bodariu's escaped from Norway and have filed suit before the European Court of Human Rights.
Norway Clogs the Docket for Child Welfare Cases at the European Court of Human Rights
The government of Norway has in the past defended the work of Barnevernet against what it called "wild accusations." But if there's not a problem, why does a nation of only five million people have 26 cases pending before the European Court of Human Rights, and 17 of the last 18?
Observers say that's a staggering number of child welfare cases for one of the smallest nations in Europe.
"There are 26 cases in total at this stage and will probably rise to 30 by within a few months," says Marius Reikerås, a Norwegian human rights council before the European Court of Human Rights.
Reikerås told us, "There is something severely wrong going on in Norway that you are taking children out of the well-working families. We're not talking about child abuse and we are not talking about alcoholism or drug abuse. We are talking about, in general, about normal families that have all the capabilities to provide good care for their children."
Norwegian Expert: Shut Barnevernet Down
Einar Salvesen, a Norwegian psychologist who has been an expert witness in Barnevernet court cases since 1995, says Barnevernet needs to shut down immediately.
"You need to close down all the offices," Salvesen old us. "It's 400 offices. It has become a system of evil in too many cases much more and more cases than we want."
In 2013, Barnevernet took American citizen Amy Jakobsen Bjørnevåg's one-and half-year-old son Tyler because he was one pound underweight. She phoned the Obama White House pleading for help. But she got no help. six years later, her son Tyler has been passed from foster home to foster home and has had his name changed at least twice. And Amy alleges that he has been tortured.
"We do have paperwork that says that he was tied to the bed because he kept standing up in his crib calling for "mommy," Bjørnevåg told us. "It isn't enough that he's been calling for you. And they completely ignore it. And they do everything to make him stop calling so they cut all contact. That's their solution instead of working with families."
Member of European Parliament: Barnevernet a "Monster"
Czech Member of the European Parliament Tomáš Zdechovský has battled Barnevernet, and he calls it a "monster."
"I think that they made a lot of mistakes and they are still doing a lot of mistakes," Zdechovský said, "And this monster is really functioning without any control of somebody."
Expert calls it "Child Trafficking"
Reikerås believes Barnevernet has not been reigned in because this is about a lot of money, and he's not afraid to call it "child trafficking."
"Because we see that billions and billions of dollars are being put into this system each year,' Reikerås says. "And, of course, a lot of people are profiting big time from this governmental pot that you can see. So, saying that this is a form of child trafficking? Absolutely. My opinion is yes."
Norwegian Government: We're trying to Fix It
We presented these charges to Norway's Ministry of Children and Families and it told us that Barnevernet is in the process of being reformed for the, "…strengthening of legal safeguards for both children and their parents."
But it's unclear whether Norway is serious about reform. It expelled a Polish diplomat this year for trying to defend Polish families in Norway from Barnevernet.
The U.S. government has so far done nothing about attacks against American families by the Norwegian government.
A Mother Loses Hope
Amy continues to lose in court and wonders if she will ever regain custody of her son.
"I would do anything to hold him in my arms at least one time, for him to have some sort of sense of where he comes from and his background and his family, that there is a whole family that loves him and misses him."
Response from Norwegian State Secretary Jorunn Hallaråker at the Ministry of Children and Families to CBN News:
- Protecting children from neglect, maltreatment, violence, and abuse, and securing their wellbeing is one of the most important tasks for my Government. Our system is child-centric and the best interest of the child is the guiding principle.
- The Child Welfare Act underlines that children should grow up with their parents. The Act places great importance on family ties and continuity in the child’s upbringing.
- An important feature of the Child Welfare Service is that it is a help service and the vast majority of measures offered in order to help the families, are voluntary assistive measures within the home.
- Placing a child in alternative care without the consent of the parents is always a measure of last resort. A child can only be placed in alternative care if it suffers neglect, violence or abuse.
- However, child welfare cases involve difficult dilemmas. There is often a conflict between what is best for the child and the rights of the parents.
- You refer to the present cases handled by the European Court of Human Rights. We take these proceedings very seriously. We are currently working with the Attorney General in preparing the cases for the Court. I underline that all of these cases have already been thoroughly considered by the Norwegian courts.
- The assessment of Norwegian practice before the European Court of Human Rights may highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of the Norwegian Child Welfare System and thus enables us to develop and improve it.
- We are constantly working to improve the Child Welfare System. There are a number of processes handling with different aspects of the system, among others a proposal for a new Act on Child Welfare Services was sent on public hearing this spring, a competence development strategy has been introduced, and the staff capacity of the Child Welfare Services has been strengthened. I believe these measures will improve the decisions made, and help to ensure that children and families receive the right help at the right time.
- As concerns the individual cases you refer to, I cannot comment upon these.
- The Government is constantly working to improve the Child Welfare System. There are a number of processes handling with different aspects of the system. For example:
- The Act on Child Welfare Services is currently under revision. A Committee has performed a scrutiny of the child welfare legislation in relation to a human rights perspective.
- Based on the Committee's report, a proposal for a new Act was sent on public hearing in April 2019. The proposal suggests, among other, further strengthening of legal safeguards for both children and their parents.
- A competence development strategy has also been introduced for the municipal child welfare services for the period 2018–2024. Improved education as well as measures targeting both management and employees in the child welfare services, will enhance quality of practice and decisions.
- Also, the staff capacity of the Child Welfare Services has been strengthened in recent years. From 2013 to 2018 there has been an increase of almost 1300 employees.
- To gain more knowledge about the handling of child welfare cases the Government attained a report from an independent board with a revision of more than 100 care orders and interim orders in emergency cases.
- The report is recently published, and it showed that in general, the removal of the children from the families involved was necessary in order to protect the children. It also showed that the situations leading up to a placement of children in alternative care were all grave, and not insignificant family problems. However, the report also showed deficiencies in some services, and that there is room for improvement.
- The Norwegian child welfare system is based on several legal safeguards. For example:
- The threshold for issuing a care order is defined by law, in the Child Welfare Act.
- The Child Welfare Services prepare care order cases for the County Social Welfare Board. However, a care order may only be issued by the County Social Welfare Board.
- The Boards are independent and impartial decision-making authorities, with the same procedural rules as a regular court.
- The decisions of the Board can be appealed to the regular courts.
- The County Governor at regional state level serves as a control mechanism. The Governor inspects the work of the Child Welfare Service, and parents can make complaints about the work of the Child Welfares Service to the County Governor.
- The child has the right to be heard in all decisions that affect him or her, and the views of the child shall be given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
- Parents have important legal rights in care order cases. They are entitled to free legal aid, a due process (to be heard, bring witnesses/evidence). Parents can once a year file for a revocation of the care order to have the child returned.