Kronikk

Open letter to Tim Whewell, BBC: Children in Norway are born with rights | Ben McPherson

  • Ben Mcpherson

You claim that Norwegian parents increasingly distrust the state. I couldn’t find a basis for this claim, writes Ben McPherson in an open letter to Tim Whewell. Skjermdump/BBC/Norway's Silent S

Keep asking the questions that need to be asked. But please don’t make unfounded claims about a system which by and large protects children.

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  • Ben McPherson is a writer and director.

Dear Tim Whewell,

Your film «Norway’s Silent Scandal» has caused a stir over here.

You look at the conviction of the psychiatrist who for twenty years advised on child protection cases. You claim that there has been a lack of outrage in the Norwegian media about this man, with his hard disk of child pornography. You rightly point to this expert’s role in cases where families — often immigrant families — have had their children taken from them. You ask why his cases have not been subjected to urgent review.

You’re a nimble and fair-minded journalist and you’re right to be asking these questions.

First, let me declare that I have dogs in this fight. I’m a parent to two Norwegian children; I’m an immigrant into Norway; and I’m married to someone who works at Bufdir, the directorate which provides guidance to the Child Protection Service (Barnevernet).

I’m also a former BBC television producer, so you and I share a common background where it comes to programme-making values.

Urgent review

Here’s where we agree: Norway should be looking urgently at the cases where this man’s recommendations led to child removals.

To conclude that there is no case for this is at the best complacent and at the worst dangerously antidemocratic.

Too often, the trust that Norwegians have in each other and in their institutions means that institutional failings are forgiven or shrugged off. If the intention of this is not corrupt, it still has a corrupting influence on life here.

You make important points about transparency within Norway’s Child Protection Service. So why am I left with a queasy feeling about your arguments, and about the examples you use to bolster those arguments?

You are attacking an organisation that does more good than harm. That in itself can be a good thing, because institutions — especially institutions that care for children — must be robust, and able to justify their existence.

But in the absence of important contextual detail you risk feeding a narrative that causes great harm.

I wish you’d pointed out that children are almost only removed from their parents in cases of violence or sexual abuse, or due to psychiatric problems or substance abuse. This information is freely available.

Ben McPherson. Thomas Bjørnflaten

The aim of the service is to step in and help to modify parents’ behaviour, so that children do not have to be removed. A care order is issued for fewer than 2 in 10 children who receive a ‘child welfare measure’, and only in very serious cases.

Little discussed?

What’s your basis for the claim that Barnevernet is little discussed and debated in the media? Simple internet searches would have shown you that isn’t true.

There are 3433 articles that refer to Barnevernet in this newspaper’s digital archives, 320 alone in the Debate section, 740 in the Opinion section. It’s a similar story with NRK, the national broadcaster, and with the other major newspaper sites.

True, the articles often don’t express outrage. Traditional Norwegian media are premised on measured debate, with a desire to reach a consensus.

Newspapers don’t ‘out’ people; they don’t doorstep paedophiles; their headlines tend not to shout. This means we are exposed to less gutter journalism, and to more words.

But below the line it’s a different story: debate is heated, with everything from righteous indignation to actual death threats finding a place there. I can’t help feeling you would know this if your researchers had dug a little deeper.

Then there’s social media. I found your film via a page on Facebook called «Stop Barnevernet in Norway». This was an international page, but I counted roughly 70 anti-Barnevernet Facebook pages exclusively in Norwegian, with anything from ten to 18,000 members. Barnevernet is much discussed, and its decisions and working methods heavily debated.

A safer society

As a father in Norway I know that my children’s rights trump mine. If my neighbours or my children’s school suspects that I am mistreating them, the Child Protection Service will contact me. This is as it should be, surely? My children are smaller than me, and need greater protection.

A little example from my own life. We managed to miss a letter and a reminder about a dental appointment for our younger son, and received a message that our dentist was worried and needed to hear from us within ten days. Cue panic!

And no, I wouldn’t expect you to know that 6 out of 10 Norwegian dentists have referred children to the Child Protection Service!

But protection is at the very heart of Norwegian culture, and it does concern me that you didn’t once make clear the principle, as it’s very simple and very easy to explain: children in Norway are born with rights.

Where there is a conflict between the child’s rights and the parent’s rights, the rights of the child are considered paramount. This is especially true where it comes to violence and neglect.

In case the Norwegian position seems extreme or obscure, I should point out that it’s because in 1991 the country implemented the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is a convention that is ratified by the majority of UN members (though not the US). Norway takes it so seriously that if the Convention conflicts with other Norwegian laws, it takes precedence.

That’s to say, Norway is placing international laws on child protection above its own laws. Few other countries have gone so far.

Under the Convention, children have a right to be protected from violence. The also have the right to be listened to, and to have their views taken into account in all cases that concern them.

Children’s views on their relationship with their parents form a large part of the case when determining what should happen in child protection cases.

Casual violence

I was at school in Scotland in the 1970s and ’80s, at a time where British teachers routinely brutalised children with physical punishment.

A friend of mine witnessed a female teacher break his classmate’s wrist with a leather belt.

Norway, meanwhile, had already banned such punishments, both at home and in the school.

And whilst Britain no longer allows teachers to strike children, that ban on hitting children has still not been extended to British parents. Odd, given that Britain is supposed to have implemented the Convention.

Britain accepts a level of casual violence by adults against children that is considered beyond the pale here in Norway: you may strike your child, as long as you don’t leave a mark; as long as you strike below the neck; as long as you avoid the groin; and as long as you don’t bruise or break the skin.

There is no such right in Norway. Here allegations of violence against children are — rightly — taken very seriously.

Minor physical punishments

I believe the term ‘minor physical punishment’ was used in one version of your programme. But by Norwegian terms there is no such thing as minor physical punishment where children are concerned.

British parents often claim that they smack, «but only with love».

Research is on the side of the Norwegians here: there is no evidence that striking children works, and lots of evidence that it causes damage that follows the child into adulthood.

Ordinary Norwegians understand this. If you hit your child in a supermarket, people will demand that you stop. They may well call the police. Or Barnevernet. Here there is still such a thing as Society.

Of course the law can be flawed, or imperfectly applied, and of course people break laws in the privacy of their own home. I once met a taxi driver here who boasted of how he beat his children and forced them to cover it up. But by and large the no-tolerance policy works.

Norwegian society is less premised on violence than British; Oslo’s streets are safer than Edinburgh’s or London’s. The murder rate here is 0.51 per 100,000 population. In the UK it’s double that.

A representative sample?

You claim that Norwegian parents increasingly distrust the state. I couldn’t find a basis for this claim, beyond the words of Cecilia and Inez, both of whom lost their children to Barnevernet.

Whether or not the Child Protection Service acted with excessive zeal in these two cases, it’s hardly surprising that both are suspicious of the service.

When it comes to the state’s right to keep children from their parents you say, «Inez is just one of many parents who is shocked by that decision». How do we know? Some numbers — along with a source — would have been useful here.

You glossed over the fact that in most cases Barnevernet works with families to ensure that they don’t have to remove children, and that they invest huge resources in teaching parents the skills they lack.

It’s hardly surprising that the system will work less well in cases where parents refuse that help.

Increased international criticism

It’s true, as you say, that Norway faces increased international pressure over child protection. But that again needs context.

You didn’t point out that the angriest and most vocal criticism has come from Eastern Europe. There are a number of much-discussed cases where one or both parents are Eastern European. Accusations are banded around by special-interest groups overseas, and no counter-case can be presented by the professionals involved, because everyone involved has a duty of silence.

The protests have come disproportionately through actions coordinated by groups in Romania, Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic. They maintain that traditional families and evangelical Christians are unfairly targeted by Barnevernet.

This often goes hand in hand with a perception that families’ ‘right’ to strike misbehaving children is not respected by the Norwegian authorities. They conveniently ignore the child’s right not to be struck (it’s in the UN Convention, remember?)

From minor physical punishments to death threats

Worse, this campaign over the right to inflict ‘minor physical punishment’ has led to deep hostility towards people working within Barnevernet, and to organisations that deal with it.

When the overseas campaigning is at its most vigorous, people I know receive death threats on a daily basis. Most of these come from overseas, but some come from inside the country. I’m sure, as a journalist, you’ve experienced death threats. I have. It isn’t fun.

None of this is to say that child protection cases should be beyond scrutiny. But your major claims seem to me to be without foundation.

If there is a scandal within Norwegian child protection it is far from silent; it is very heavily discussed and endlessly debated.

It’s good that you have added to that debate. I only wish you weren’t — unintentionally — feeding a narrative that Norway is anti-family and anti-Christian.

So keep asking the questions that need to be asked. But please don’t make unfounded claims about a system which by and large protects children, and please don’t uncritically contribute to a climate of anger that leads to ordinary people receiving death threats for simply trying to do their jobs.

Twitter: @TheBenMcPherson

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  1. Barnevernet
  2. BBC
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