Child Welfare Refugees – Not without my Child
Siri (not her real name) has applied for asylum in Poland because she feels persecuted by the Norwegian Child Welfare System (NCWS).
Most parents with toddlers will nod with recognition to what is unfolding in the villa outside Warsaw this afternoon: The resident’s two-year-old has just returned from his second day in kindergarten. He is delighted and rushes between gymnastics on the coach, remote controls, cell phones and the back of his mother that becomes a steep horse at any time. Occasionally he pops under the dining table and picks up a toy for the resident’s eight-month-old baby, who with big eyes watches from her mother’s lap.
The unusual thing in this house is the status of the residents: The two Norwegian single mothers in their thirties characterise themselves and their children as refugees. „Siri“ has applied to the Polish Republic for asylum for herself and her daughter, while „Lena“ hopes that she and her son will be able to live a normal life here without going to such measures. Both mothers wish for the Polish authorities to approve their ability to be parents, claiming that the Norwegian authorities do not. Therefore, they are fleeing from the Norwegian child welfare services.
There has been a sharp increase in the number of reports of concerns when it comes to childhood upbringing in Norway these recent years. In 2016, NCWS received 58,000 such reports. Most of them about parents‘ lack of parental skills. As a rule, NCWS‘ further investigations result in measures that will help the biological parents to give their children a good upbringing. In other words, the vast majority of families who come into contact with the child welfare system in Norway consist.
However, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of children taken out of their biological family, from just over 9000 in 2003 to almost 16,000 in 2016. More frequently than before, NCWS takes over the care responsibilities for younger children. According to the Children’s Youth and Family Directorate, it is because research has given increased knowledge of the importance of parents‘ skills for children’s health, especially when it comes to the youngest.
Little Tuva was born with Caesarean section almost a year ago. Her mum, Siri, had developed gestational diabetes. The birth was therefore initiated with medication, but half way through, the mother had to be moved to the surgical ward.
„The morning after, I was awakened by a responsible midwife and a nurse who said that the NCWS wanted to talk to me. I was still in so bad shape that several nurses had to help lift me from the bed and into a wheelchair”, Siri says.
The physical problems were overshadowed by the certainty of the four public employees that were waiting. Siri called private investigator Finn Abrahamsen, whom she had received help from earlier. He was in Spain. Then she called lawyer Signe Blekastad, who threw herself in a taxi. When she finally arrived, Siri put her child on her lap and let them push her in her wheelchair to meet with the child welfare representatives.
„They did not say much, other than that they had received an anonymous report of concern. They probably did not expect to meet a lawyer. I sat with my daughter on my lap and concentrated mostly about her.”
The child welfare visit was not that surprising to Siri. She has a child from a previous relationship, and two years earlier, the NCWS had transferred the daily care of this child to the child’s father. When Siri became pregnant with child number two, someone expressed concern about her previous drug use and caring failure with the eldest child. According to the child welfare, someone in her immediate circle was anxious about whether she would manage to handle another child.
“The NCWS attempted to create a case, but as long as the baby was not born, they were dependent on my consent. Obviously, I became worried, even if the allegations of neglect of care to my eldest child were never documented or treated legally. During a pre-birth meeting at the hospital, I said that I was worried about what could happen when the child was born. The nurse made me lower my shoulders: „Why should they take the baby? At the hospital we decide, „she said.”
Lena has grown up under child welfare care. Her youth was characterized by substance abuse and crime. The pregnancy three years ago changed everything: She became drug-free and left her old environment behind. The focus was to be as good a mother as possible for her son. Still, he was placed in the emergency care only a few weeks after his birth. When the baby was a couple of months old she felt forced to accept an offer to stay at a mothers‘ home for guidance and follow-up in the care role.
After a short time she learned that the NCWS plan was to take her son away on a permanent basis. It did not take long before the police came and fetched the baby. When the county council last autumn decided that the child should be returned to her mother, her happiness was exuberant, but the fear of losing her son once again dwelled in her.
„I’ve had the passport ready and the bag packed since they took him for the second time,“ she says.
When in summer, someone reported a concern that she might have started on drugs again, NCWS wanted to resume contact. Lena took the prepackaged bag and left.
„I feel harassed and insecure in Norway. NCWS never gives you peace, even if they lose in the county council and all drug tests are negative.”
Siri got home from the hospital with her newborn baby. The reports from the hospital described a mother without need of guidance and that exercised good care. Even though she had given the name of the child’s father, she was a single mum. A conscious single mum who made sure that she always had friends with childcare skills present when the NCWS was visiting.
The daughter was described as „well-kept and satisfied,“ and the interaction between mother and daughter as „adequate“ during this period. But in the case papers it also appears that the public officials felt it was difficult to decide on the mother’s caring skills when she was never alone. NCWS repeatedly suggested a period of investigation at a mothers‘ home so that they could observe her over time. Siri was not interested, but her four months after her birth it was no longer her decision.
„My lawyer called and said that the child welfare services had made two decisions, which combined meant that I had to agree to stay three months in a mothers‘ home, and if not, they would take my baby away. NCWS rang the door while I spoke with her on the phone.”
That same day, Siri reluctantly moved into the mothers‘ home. The reports from the institution describe how the attempts by the staff to „guide mother in caring for the child“ failed: „Mother has (…) avoided all types of offer for help from the staff. She has not been present much in the ward, and therefore we have not been able to support and guide her or to assess the child’s need for help and support.“
„They lie,“ says Siri. “They even forbade me to talk to the other residents.”
One early morning, after about a month in what she calls „the house of terror“, Siri put her daughter in the stroller and went out the door, determined never to return.
“The lawyer, private investigator Finn Abrahamsen and I had an appointment with the mothers‘ home and NCWS that morning. When NCWS canceled with a strange reason, we suspected that something was going on. In consultation with the lawyer, I therefore withdrew my consent to being in the mothers‘ home”, says Siri.
She went into hiding in Oslo. Since the interaction between her and her daughter was not yet evaluated by professionals, she consulted two expert psychologists on her own initiative.
„After half an hour we had sufficient evidence that the interaction is impeccable. Then one said, „Now we turn off the camera, and then you have to go out of the country.“
The daughter was not yet registered with a social security number and did not have a passport, but Siri knew people who were willing to help them. After a couple of months with good friends, they ended up in Warsaw.
“This is where the power is. Unlike others who are on the run, I will not hide. I want to be washed clean of all accusations. To do that, the case has to be lifted upwards and into the spotlight.”
In September, the news of a Norwegian woman who had applied for asylum for herself and her child in Poland was revealed. The first article in the nationwide newspaper Nasz Dziennik was followed by several radio and television channels. Suddenly, Siri was a celebrity. The police stopped her on the street and wanted to take pictures with her and send to their Norwegian colleagues to show that „in Poland we protect our ladies, we do not come and take their babies at night“. A women’s association started a signature campaign for them. She was invited to the government’s official honoring of the national family rights day.
In early October, Siri was a guest on one of the country’s most popular TV debate shows. „How does a person come to Poland with her own child because she is afraid of being deprived of the child?“ was the host’s opening line.
Siris’s lawyer, Jerzy Kwasniewski, explained to 530,000 television viewers about why he is convinced that the Norwegian child welfare services will take Siris’s daughter and that, based on this, she needs Poland’s protection:
„NCWS is an institution that represents and contains the worst ingredients that violate European family rights. Siris’s situation is a very good example of how child welfare can break a family and ruin family life and relationships between parents and children.”
Lawyer Kwasinjewski, representing the conservative ideal legal foundation, „Ordo Iuris“, said that four percent of all families in Norway are monitored and controlled by the Norwegian child welfare system and that “almost all children must show their food package at school or kindergarten, and the teacher has to report to the child welfare office. They also are hard on parents‘ overuse of medicines, the possibility of depression, and chaotic ways of life.”
The TV host was clearly shocked: “Sorry, I’m laughing, but it’s hard to be serious. Everyone is entitled to a little bad mood or a bad day?” The Polish UDI’s studio representative, Jakob Dudziak, would not say anything about Siri’s opportunities for asylum:
“All foreigners who want or need to can apply for asylum in Poland. They must fulfill two requirements simultaneously: they must be in need of protection and it must be in the interest of the Polish Republic to give them that. If these two requirements are met, the UDI and the Foreign Minister can give asylum in Poland.”
The TV host concluded with an insurance to Siri: “You are in a free country and you can feel safe here.”
For the last couple of years, Poland has had to withstand a lot of international criticism: In May this year, the EU Commission threatened Poland with legal action and possible eviction from the EU because the country refused to accept asylum seekers through the EU quota system. Journalist Piotr Falkowsky, who first wrote about Siri, points to this backdrop as one of several reasons why this case is particularly interesting for Poland’s media and population:
„It is sensational that an eloquent and resourceful woman from the West, indeed, from a country that looks like a kind of paradise, seeks asylum in Poland. It is not many years ago that Poland was a communist regime, and many Poles sought asylum in the West. Our background also means that the degree of governmental involvement in people’s privacy in Scandinavian countries is a violation of the rights of the individual. While you seem to have unlimited confidence in that the state knows best what’s right for you and does things in your best interest, the State in our eyes, is always an enemy we cannot trust”, he says.
In a country where the family is more important than the individual, it seems incomprehensible that the state will permanently separate parents and children. Almost independent of the situation in the home.
„There are cases where children are removed from their parents here too, but it never happens without a fuss. For us, even the world’s worst parent is a better caregiver than the State.”
The Polish journalist Henryk Malinowski has lived in Norway for more than 30 years and has a good knowledge of both Norwegian and Polish society.
„The Polish government has long been told that the family will receive stronger protection. In this way, the issue of NCWS refugees becomes a testament to the government. If she gets asylum in Poland, it will be a prime example of the government taking this seriously”, he says.
„Poles do not like the Norwegian model, where you have a chaperone mentality. In Poland, the families get a lot of trust. In Norway, the opposite is the case, where the State is supervising through the kindergarten and through the school system”, says Malinowski. He is not sure how the unusual asylum case can affect the relationship between Poland and Norway:
„Norway will certainly use tools to put pressure on Poland in this case, that be the EEA or oil and gas. We may come to a point where Norway will demand this woman extradited. Then it remains to see how the Polish Foreign Ministry will respond.”
In the corridors of the Polish Parliament building in Warsaw, a school class is on guided tours. They are curious about the woman in a purple dress. Perhaps no wonder, because MP Piotr Uscinski insists on taking a selfie with her, then he kisses her gallantly on the hand. Uscinski is the leader of a group of Parliamentarians who work to promote family matters. He has just presented the details in Siris’s case and finds it very interesting.
„To me it is a paradox that countries depicting the freedom lighthouse violate key points of the human rights convention,“ he says, and refers to the article 8 of the Convention on the „right to a family life“.”
“Here it will not be enough to report someone for poor childcare anonymously. If a child complains to the school that it is being hit home, the police will investigate the matter. All claims must be verified and documented. Our goal is that the family should be a whole, so we do nothing unless it is clear that the child’s life or health is at risk, he says, and even though he personally does not know anyone, he knows that more and more foreign families choose to move to Poland because they can raise their children as they please.”
„If a child suffers with the parents, it will of course be moved, but we have as a principle that care should remain in close family if possible,“ says the family politician, and continues:
“If the problem is alcohol abuse, parents who are in therapy can get the children back. If they are in jail and prove that they can work their way back, they do the same, even if they have committed violence. The parents get close follow-up and help to cope with parenting.”
Uscinski can only come up with one type of parent who certainly will not keep or return his child in Poland:
“A pedophile dad. And if the parents are not interested in having the children, it may be opened for adoption. In all other cases, parents’ rights are very strong here.” He smiles: „I understand that Poland appears almost as a freedom island in Europe these days, and I am very pleased with that.”
There are no numbers on how many parents flee the intervention from NCWS annually, or escape abroad. After the new Penal Code came into force in Norway in 2015, parents are more likely to be prosecuted if they run away from NCWS with their children. Before October 1st 2015, a decision on temporary placement or care takeover was required, a request for a decision to initiate criminal prosecution is now sufficient.
Two days before Siri publicised her case on the TV debate program, her Polish lawyer was sought by the police and asked to state where Siri and her daughter were staying. The child welfare office in Norway had reported the eight-month-old baby missing, and the Norwegian police had sent the case to their Polish colleagues. Attorney Jerzy Kwasiniewski refused to respond, with reference to Siri being in an asylum process. He also asked for a legal reason for the inquiry. When this article was printed, he had not yet received an answer.
Signe Blekastad, Siris Norwegian lawyer, believes that the Norwegian authorities do not have the legal basis for reporting Siri or the daughter missing. She points out that the child welfare service recently withdrew their own care decision case which they had sent to the County Council earlier this year:
„Legally, my client is a free woman who can travel wherever she wants with her child. I mean that she can also travel safely home to Norway without fear of losing the care of her child. But I realise she’s anxious.”
Siri has excused herself from the NCWS confidentiality code, but they do not wish to comment:
„We do not want to comment on the case, either on a general or specific basis. It’s about the child’s legal rights”, says the head of the current child welfare service.
After Siris’s case became known, lawyer Jerzy Kwasiniewski received several inquiries from Norwegian families wishing to apply for asylum in Poland.
„At the moment we are working on three issues about Norwegian families seeking protection from Norwegian child welfare services. We have not come far enough in our process so that I can say anything specific yet. We spent two months on Siris’s case and, in our view, it is both well documented and very clear: there is no doubt that her right to family life is violated in Norway”, he says and stresses that the processing of an asylum application can take up to six months.
„Most asylum applications in the Polish Republic are rejected, but this is about a European, and there is no doubt that NCWS has violated article eight of the European Human Rights. We decided to help Siri to demonstrate that we protect these rights and all those seeking refuge in Poland.”
In the villa where the two Norwegian single mothers seek their refuge, the two-year-old keeps the pace up. Mummy Lena opens the patio door to the garden, which is protected by high fences and an automatic gate. The son tests his fishsherman’s luck in an overgrown pond. With mum Siris’s help, tiny Tuva hesitantly puts her Hello Kitty-shoed feet on the grass. Lena has just been told that the NCWS committee will take her case to the county council to order her to receive help measures at home in Norway. Siri has just learned that the Norwegian police is tracing her in Poland. What do they think about the future? „I just want to stay here as long as possible,“ Lena replies. „After all, I hope to get a job,“ she adds. „It’s important for me to get on my feet. Get the opportunity to show everyone that I’m a good mother for my daughter”, says Siri.
One of the first things she did when she came to Poland was to visit the Forensic Institute.
„I wanted them to take hair samples that could show if I had used drugs this past year.”
“The only thing they could trace was Paracet (mild painkiller). Since I was also accused of having mental issues, I have been seeing two independent psychiatrists here to prove that I am completely sane. My daughter has received vaccines and has been examined by Poland’s best pediatric physicians. She gets the best testimonies/results”, says Siri, adding that when the examination of the asylum application has been completed, she will take the case to Strasbourg’s Human Rights Court. “To highlight the injustice committed to me in Norway. I will not give up until those responsible are made responsible.“
Currently, Siri lives on Norwegian NAV money and financial support from her parents, but she is planning on getting a job soon. „I already have a job offer,“ she smiles. The two women never thought that the decision to flee from NCWS could have more negative consequences than staying in Norway.
„My main focus was to secure my youngest child, but it was never an easy decision to leave. I had to leave my oldest child behind, „says Siri. “I came here to rescue my boy. I do not want him to experience the child welfare system that I have grown up under, „says Lena. Siri believes it helps to know that Polish family policy has a different approach to the family than Norway has.
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This is the English translation of an article featured in Dagbladet’s magazine (a Norwegian News outlet) on Saturday 21. Oct. 2017. Here is the link to the original Norwegian article:
[Photo:/ CC0 Public Domain]