When I think about Bodnariu case, the Romanian Norwegian family whose children have been placed in foster care mid November, I don’t think so much about the parents as I think how the children will be affected. Although the parents live a drama, they are nevertheless adults, but the children are those facing a tragedy, because the trauma provoked by their removal from the family will very likely have long term consequences.
Many opinions have been expressed these days, by journalists, bloggers, public authorities, the public at large, the emotions being that high that thousands of people went to streets in Romania and elsewhere to demonstrate their support for the family. None of us knows exactly what happened in that family and what were the reasons determining Barnevernet, the Norwegian child welfare service, to place the children in foster care. Some information coming from Mr Bodnariu does exist, while no information has been released from Barnevernet. We know that Mr Bodnariu admitted that a few times he applied a limited physical correction on his older children but at the same time we know he wanted to make efforts to be a better father. He saw his attitude as a controlled one, without harming the children, rather disciplining them although he understood that in Norway is not allowed. Should we believe him? Well, for the moment I think so, because there is evidence he said the truth: he was pretty honest during those many hours when he was interrogated by the police, explaining everything, admitting his wrongdoings, asking for advise, and in the end he was released and went home without any charge against him. Had he been guilty of using violence in a way that would harm the children he could have been punished with six months in prison.
I personally do not accept any violence against children, either physical or verbal. Violence make children fear their parents, even disrespect them, instead of understanding why they should behave in certain way. But I also am aware that not all the parents know how important is to act this way, and they themselves need help. Fearing the consequences of a though law which can go that far as to remove their children is ok, but not enough. Kindergartens’ and schools’ principles, teachers and psychologists should discuss these aspects with the parents even before a first incident would appear. However, what should the society do when violence take place? Removing the children from the family should be only the last resort. What did Barnevernet do to Bodnariu family? They placed all the children, including the three months breast feeding baby, in foster care, separated them from their parents and between themselves. We do not know what are the reasons of such an extreme decision because the service considers that everything it does should be confidential. I would respect their way of acting if it would be based on thorough social investigations. But we know this was not the case. Allegedly only now there are some investigations but the parents are not duly informed. This is rather a kafkian scenario: a service that can take harsh decisions based on rumors, suspicions, not on evidence, a sort of appeal against such decisions that are “judged” by a commission of the same service, while the parents have the difficult task to defend themselves against suspicions and rumors. It seems that in the end, after several months, the case will go to a judge, but the question is what will be the evidence on which the judge will base the decision? This is why I insisted that the pressure we all should put would not be on the service or a judge regarding the decision, this would be an unacceptable interference, but on the Barnevernet to undertake a full social investigation (in Romanian is called “ancheta sociala”): school professors, school colleagues should be interviews, neighbors should be listened to, medical record should be taken into account, doctors should be interviewed, etc, etc. Children should be interviewed as well, very carefully, because we know how is to influence their testimonies. Only after such a comprehensive investigation someone, be it Barnevernet, or a judge, or a public opinion, would understand what really happened, and the parents would have a genuine chance to explain and defend themselves if this is the case.
Why in the Norwegian child protection system things are different? I understand and share the desire to protect the children. However it is clear to me that the exaggerations of this service are often leading to abuse. Norway has had a pretty good child protection system for many years. But it was rather good on paper with abominable child abuses in practice. In 1991 a horrible case was brought to the public attention, when a young girl and her boyfriend killed the girl’s father. During the trial, it was revealed that for years the father, a farmer living in a remote area, was a disgusting sexual abuser who used his daughter to pay his poker debts. At the time of the trial, rumors and evidence came to light about other sexual predator parents. This was the moment when Barnevernet was established, in 1992, based on a special law, to protect the children from the abuse of their parents. In my opinion they went from one extreme to the other. I am not entirely convinced that Barnevernet social workers cover all remote areas in Norway. I hope so. Nevertheless, I am surprised how this service and its social workers seem to regard children as robots whose souls and feelings do not matter too much. Otherwise, to me it is impossible to understand how they do not think about the trauma they cause by removing the children from their homes and placing them in other homes. Parents may sometimes be wrong and need help, but normally they love their children, they protect them, children love their parents and feel safe with their parents. How can someone consider that breaking this bond is harmless? It is not. It is very harmful therefore it should be indeed the last resort.
One more thing on the Barnevernet independence and investigations’ and reports’ confidentiality. They say confidentiality is to protect the children. Ok, but on the condition that it does not hide incompetence or abuses. Which I am afraid is often the case of Barnevernet. There is no such thing as absolute independence of a public authority or of an externalized service such as the Norwegian case, protecting the children includesprotecting also their rights to be with their biological family. And when a right is violated, due process of law means a fair trial, the right of the biological family to be informed about the accusations and defend against them. When Barnevernet takes the decision based on suspicions and also Barnevernet is the higher authority to decide …something is not right. Quite the opposite, one may get the impression that this service “creates cases” in order to justify its existence. After all, Barnevernet’s main task as a protector of the children should be to keep the children within their biological families. Unless somebody considers that children belong to the state, an approach common rather to dictatorships not to democratic Norway.
Maybe the Norwegian authorities should control the activity of Barnevernet. Not case by case. But at least its annual activity, to see in how many cases they intervened, what kind of interventions, how many children were taken from their families, what was the nationality of those families (allegedly 80-90% had a different nationality than Norwegian), in what kind of families were children placed in foster care or adopted, in how many cases Barnevernet decisions were reversed by a judge, etc etc. Only based on such comprehensive analyses the Norwegian authorities and the Parliament in particular, should decide how to continue their child protection, or if something needs to be changed.
There will be many to say that as Romanians we should speak only after we solve our own problems, particularly since at home we have many abused children and many of our fellow Romanian regard domestic violence as a normal attitude. I strongly disagree with such an approach. As I said, my concern is the children and I believe that every time when we see an abuse we should denounce it regardless of the country where it occurs.
Member of the European Parliament, ALDE Romania
60 Rue Wiertz, ASP 08H 149, Brussels