Earlier this month, Norwegian school officials took away Airida Pettersen’s children at school and placed them in a foster home. Pettersen, a Lithuanian immigrant living in Norway, is one of hundreds of immigrant parents whose children have been taken away by Norway’s Child Protection Service, or Barnevernet, to protect them from “mistreatment,” the Associated Press reported.
Though Pettersen’s relative was able to reunite the mother with her children in Lithuania, where they are staying now, her case is not unique. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of children born to immigrant parents taken by the Barnevernet increased from 744 to 1,049. About 3 percent of foreign-born children in Norway are placed in foster care, the Associated Press found. And the Norwegian publication Aftenposten found that about 40 percent of children under the Barnevernet’s care have an immigrant background.
European countries have the ability to place both domestic and foreign children in foster care if there are signs of abuse in the home. But some groups claim that cultural differences are to blame for some of these issues. For example, corporeal punishment in Norway is illegal, though some immigrants come from cultures where that is tolerated.
Many families come from areas where the government doesn’t interfere in domestic issues. “Very many people come from other cultures with no government intervening in their domestic affairs. Then they come to Norway and the government intervenes in the family and they have no experience with this,” Gunnar Toresen, head of the Child Protection Service in Stavanger, told the Associated Press. “So I understand that this is a very emotional situation.”
Advocacy groups for immigrant parents also find that there is a lot of cultural misunderstanding. “Often the lunchbox … is not good enough for school or there is problem with schoolwork,” Ieva Rise, an Oslo lawyer representing several Latvian families in disputes with officials, told the publication. “In Latvia and Russia, children help more in the home when they are quite small. This can be a problem as well.”
Earlier this year, the Aftenposten newspaper reported that the Barnevernet took into custody about 3,000 children of non-Norwegian parents. The statistic became something of a warning for people in the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia who traveled to Norway “where they take your kids.”
Advocacy groups state that when immigrant children are placed in child welfare in Norway, they’re often put in foster homes that don’t match the children’s language, culture, and religion. One immigrant woman, unable to communicate with her daughter once the child was placed with a Norwegian foster family, ultimately kidnapped her and took her back to Lithuania. About 60 other similar kidnappings have happened over the past decade, News In English reported.
But domestic intervention by Norwegian child welfare officials in immigrant households has persisted for some years now. In a high-profile case that involved the Indian government in 2012, 3-year-old Abhigyan Bhattacharya and his 1-year-old sister Aishwarya were placed in foster care after the 3-year-old displayed erratic behavior at school. Norwegian officials objected to the children sleeping in the same bed as their parents and being fed by hand, which they said “amounted to force-feeding,” NDTV reported at the time. The children were initially put in the custody of the father’s brother in India, and later with the mother.