If you live in Norway, you have likely heard about "barnevernet"—the Child Welfare Services—even if you don’t have children.
This public agency with the legal power to get deeply involved in family life has faced criticism for cultural insensitivity and putting the needs of children over the rights of parents.
And yet, the law that gives barnevernet this power complies with Norway's obligations laid down in EU and UN human rights conventions.
The agency has, in OsloMet professor Julia Köhler-Olsen’s view, even evolved and improved through the controversies.
A balancing act
Barnevernet has been under increased scrutiny since 2018 when the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe initiated a fact-finding commission led by the Parliamentary Assembly’s Committee on Social Affairs, Health, and Sustainable Development.
This resulted in the report “Striking a balance between the best interest of the child and the need to keep families together” (pace.coe.int).
Controversy was further fueled by a 2019 decision by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (hudoc.echr.coe.int) that found Norway in violation of human rights.
In the face of debates over barnevernet, Köhler-Olsen, a legal studies professor at OsloMet's Faculty of Social Sciences, explains that while the organization has certainly made mistakes in its application of the law, the law itself is in line with the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Norwegian Supreme Court made this clear in the first case dealing with barnevernet (in Norwegian, lovdata.no) after the European of Human Rights Grand Chamber judgement in 2019.
The new Norwegian Child Welfare Act, which came into force in January 2023, aligns even better with Norway’s human rights obligations compared to the previous act, Köhler-Olsen emphasizes.
The OsloMet researcher draws on her research on law and society in analyzing barnevernet, considering why certain norms are in place and questioning how and why things work as they do.
In her research, she is sensitive to the power of the state—one of her main areas of focus is how to balance that authority with the rights of individuals.
The exceptional power of the state
Köhler-Olsen explains that barnevernet, like other child welfare authorities in Europe, has the goal of protecting children from harm and ensuring their health and development.
In most cases, they play a supportive role for families, providing parenting courses and other constructive measures.
However, barnevernet has a unique power to enter homes and observe families without court oversight. That power needs to be used carefully, the OsloMet researcher stresses.
When observing a family and determining that the child and parents need support or intervention, barnevernet must always consider the mildest effective course.
Sometimes, the caseworkers do conclude that it is necessary to remove the child from their home temporarily or, in rare cases, permanently.
Köhler-Olsen emphasizes that this action is not taken lightly. The level of interference in family life that removing a child from their parents represents is always controversial. It is these rare removals that have led to so much criticism of barnevernet in Norway and abroad.
Unfortunately, the decision that a child must be removed from its home can in some cases be based on wrongful considerations.
Köhler-Olsen explains that "sometimes mistakes can happen earlier in the process that are not visible to people working in the system."
This can lead to incorrect application of the law later in the process which can cause harm to children and their families.
When the legal power that barnevernet is entitled to wield is misused, the results can be dramatic.
Cultural conflict and compassion
A critical issue for barnevernet has been its perceived lack of cultural sensitivity towards families from different backgrounds.
The law says Norway must protect children in danger of life, health, and developmental harm. This includes harm from emotional neglect.
But behavior that may be seen as emotionally nurturing in one culture may look like neglect viewed through a different cultural lens.
What does a parent do that makes an observer say, ‘that’s emotional neglect’? How does the majority society decide for others?– Julia Köhler-Olsen
The lack of cultural sensitivity towards families from non-ethnic Norwegian backgrounds, specifically the way parents relate to their children and express emotions, may lead a case worker to misinterpret a behavior as abuse and set in motion a process that ultimately results in a child being taken out of the home.
This point has been brought up in international coverage of barnevernet for years and lies at the heart of many of the criticisms of the agency.
Fortunately, Norway has responded to these criticisms by updating the laws to reflect the need for greater cultural awareness.
The Child Welfare Act now requires authorities to assess and consider a family’s cultural background when considering interventions.
Additionally, education programmes for barnevernet caseworkers and officials now incorporate cultural background awareness and cultural sensitivity training in their curriculum.
Criticisms, fair and otherwise
Köhler-Olsen says that some groups argue that the system does not respect the rights of parents and gives too much weight to the child’s rights, and that the calculation needs to be rebalanced to be more just.
Norway has several powerful and outspoken advocacy groups that speak for parents who feel they have been wronged by barnevernet.
"These groups say that Norway’s child welfare system has too much power," the OsloMet researcher says, "and that it is misusing its power."
We know about mistakes. The law is within the bounds of human rights, but the dilemma of considering the parents’ rights versus the rights of the child will always be there.– Julia Köhler-Olsen
In the cases where the European Court of Human Rights found that Norway did violate the parents and the child’s right to family life, the court upheld barnevernet’s authority to remove a child from a home if deemed necessary.
However, the court criticized public authorities for not giving enough consideration to the parent’s right to family life.
It ruled that it is a wrongful use of legal power when the parents’ interests are not balanced more carefully and consciously with the best interests of the child.
Köhler-Olsen also believes that the controversy surrounding barnevernet is partly political in nature.
Nationalist groups in places like Poland, Chechnya, Estonia, and the US have found support for their own political agendas by using criticisms of barnevernet to denounce what they regard as Norway's democratic socialist policies.
According to Köhler-Olsen, research shows that Norway’s legal framework for child protection is consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The decisions by the European Court of Human Rights, however, have demonstrated that Norway must improve its application of the law to ensure the protection of the human rights of both parents and children.
Still, heart-breaking mistakes have been made. In response, laws and barnevernet’s practices have been updated to avoid future mistakes.
In fact, as a direct result of the past decade’s controversies, the new Child Welfare Act makes the requirement to consider a family’s culture and the rights of the parents much more explicit.
"We know about mistakes," says Köhler-Olsen.
"The law is within the bounds of human rights, but the dilemma of considering the parents’ rights versus the rights of the child will always be there."
"It is a system with legal power which must be used carefully and with a high degree of professionalism."