Miscarriage of justice

In 2011, award-winning Norwegian film-maker Kathrine Haugen’s world fell apart. Haugen was filming in Cyprus at the time, recording a feature film called Skvis (“Squeeze”). Back at the hotel the phone rang. In immense distress, one of Haugen’s best friends informed her that Norway’s Child Welfare System (NCWS), known as ‘Barnevernet’, had taken her children away with the help of the police. This experience led Kathrine on a eight-year film-making journey.

During the research process for her forthcoming film, Haugen had the privilege of meeting up with Eva Michaláková, one of the best-known victims of injustice at the hands of NCWS. Haugen writes:

Eva Michaláková is the mother of two sons, David and Denis. To ensure that the two boys grow up to become solid and productive Norwegian citizens, the Norwegian authorities have decided that both David and Denis are to break all bonds with their mother Eva and the rest of their Czech family. They are to be brought up in two separate Norwegian homes, even though both are citizens of the Czech Republic.

The system of child welfare has a long and solid tradition in Norway. As the first country in the world to pass a law that gave the Norwegian state permission and responsibility to take care of children (in reality children from the lower parts of society) in the year 1900, the tradition carries on with increasing strength today. An enormous growth in the Norwegian economy in the last forty years or so is one plausible explanation why the number of children taken away from their parents by force have exploded in Norway over the past decade.

Another reasonable explanation is that Norway continues an over-100-year-old tradition of a severe form of social control. The laws that apply in these cases prove this point. They are written and interpreted in a way that leaves no room for the family to object to state interference in their private lives.

The government-appointed expert group on the matter, Raundalen-utvalget, stated in 2012 that its ethical stance is “to weaken the family’s power and freedom, and enable society to rescue the most vulnerable children”.

Given this viewpoint, it is no wonder that around five children are taken away from their parents without warning each day in supposedly the “best country on earth” to live in. The group also says that one of the reasons for this “ethical” stance is to make sure that children grow up to become “solid and productive members of society in the best interests of the nation”.

The fact that this policy breaks with basic human rights is not an issue for the Norwegian government, which blindly continues its offensive campaign against families living in Norway. The idea behind this policy is the same today as it was when the law was first written: control over the working class to protect society against children who might be a threat to the social order. Today, Norway has the resources to implement this ideology to its full potential, and in this regard finalise an experiment that started well over a century ago.

One can also read into the state’s premise of the goal to eliminate all social problems: to be the first nation in the world to create “the perfect state”. The means to achieve this goal are an extremely tight-knit system of laws, and subsequently the effectiveness with which these laws are carried out.

Today, we see that a very high number of foreign citizens under the age of 18 are taken into custody by the Norwegian authorities. It is as if the mantra is: “What we don’t understand is considered a danger to our way of life.”

This process of assimilation is not new in Norway. In the summer of 2015, an official report stated that Norway had indeed conducted an assimilation process against the Tater / Romani people; a process, the report states, that is in breach of human rights. It is interesting that the actions of the state that are condemned as a criminal act against the Tater / Romani people are the same actions Eva Michaláková has been subjected to. It is no wonder that this form of politics has created protest movements all around the world.

In July 2015, Eva came to visit me and my family in the small town where we live. We did some interviews, had meals together and talked about her children, and how her case has impacted her and her family. During the time we spent together, one of the days was spent on the beach. Eva connected well with my daughter Alma, and it is sad to think about what her sons are missing.

I first met Eva in Prague in October 2014 during a session held at Charles University. I was there shooting footage for my documentary about the Norwegian child welfare system. It was my first time in Prague, and I went on a boat trip to get some footage of this beautiful city. I also spent time at the Franz Kafka museum, and the striking resemblance between The Trial by Kafka and Eva’s experience with the Norwegian repressive state apparatus cannot be ignored.

To first be accused of something and, in the background of these vague suspicions, which have been constructed by strangers, moved to the next step in the process – this is the massive dehumanising process Eva was, and still is, being subjected to. [Norwegian philosopher and author] Prof Dr Arild Linneberg states suggests that when one conducts a character-assassination on the accused this is a clear indication of a miscarriage of justice.

Eva was first noticed by an employee at the preschool, who thought Eva was ‘strange’. The seed of suspicion was planted, and with this gaze of mistrust that was cast upon Eva the suspicions led to accusations that subsequently grew, both in number and in severity, until Eva ended up becoming the ‘monstrous mother’. And without being in a position to prove that the accusations were false, Eva lost the right to have any contact with the two boys she had carried in her heart and given birth to.

This is a predicament that is impossible to fully convey in a documentary. I think one has to turn to Franz Kafka to comprehend what it feels like to be put in this situation. It is important for me to demonstrate that it’s not the parents who are the criminals in these cases.

The pattern that repeats itself in all the cases in this documentary are constructed beforehand. First of all, there is a story constructed at a national level; a narrative developed over the last century in which scientists, strongly influenced by the Positivist school of criminology, have won control. Since this version of reality won the battle on how to view the world the consequence has been an enormous growth in professions relating to detecting, diagnosing and treating children. It is also important to emphasise that all professions regarding children in Norway – from the midwife, to medical doctors, nurses, preschool teachers and teachers – are constantly reminded of their obligation to report any form of abnormality to the authorities.

Civilians are also – through massive paid-for campaigns and via editorial pieces in newspapers and TV – reminded how vulnerable children are, and that we all have an obligation to contact child welfare if we have the slightest suspicion of anything being wrong with a child or its parents.

We are told that this campaign is to ensure help for children in need, but when one studies the texts, laws and ideology behind this social construction the premise is still based on the nation’s need to maintain a high degree of social control. The state has a special obligation to ensure that the ‘gold of the nation’ – the workforce – becomes as solid as it can be.

The fact is, the apparatus constructed to ‘help’ these children have a workforce that the state itself has, on several occasions, acknowledged does not have the educational level or the level of personal ability to do their job properly and in accordance with the law, does not stop the authorities from increasing the number of children subjected to this peculiar form of assistance to ‘help’ them become well-functioning adults.

The Franz Kafka Museum displays a board with a text that reads: “Franz Kafka was born into a myth called Prague. A city with three human groups (Czechs, Germans and Jews) at work, brought together there centuries ago, yet separated by cultural, racial and linguistic differences. The conflict leaves its mark on the city’s physiology, turning the districts into hermetic compartments, drawing out invisible borders, but it does not determine the ultimate nature of the cage. We also have to discern this from the bird’s point of view.”

Eva’s two sons were born into a myth called Norway. Comprehending the time we are living in is hard, and it might be impossible to understand the invisible borders the different people groups migrating to Norway now have to face. To be part of a society and still be a stranger in it are experiences I believe everybody can relate to. One need not be a foreign citizen in a strange country to feel like an outsider. One can feel estranged even from one’s own family at times. These feelings are not to be considered a diagnosis, nor is it a hindrance to a nation’s growth that people from different cultures, races and languages live together. On the contrary, diversity brings creativity and innovation.

It is understandable that Norway, as an extremely homogeneous nation with a long tradition in practising what one can say is a severe form of social control, feels the need to use force to uphold peace and stability when the demographics of the country change dramatically. But there are limits to what the state can allow itself to do in this regard, and human rights are one of the regulations Norway has agreed to enforce and uphold.

Forceful integration of individuals is assimilated. It is interesting to witness the lack of patience the authorities in Norway have regarding those who deviate from the standard settings. And it’s fascinating to experience the breach in what is said and what is actually done in Norway regarding those who are labelled ‘different’. Norway proclaims that it is a tolerant and understanding nation, but if a child has the wrong kind of clothing at preschool the alarm goes off and the authorities are notified.

As there are so many families that deviate from the ‘norm’, the number of families reported to child welfare is rapidly growing. Around 50,000 families are being subjected to a thorough investigation by the authorities each year. The lack of trust in parents’ ability to care for their own children will have long-term consequences, and what this kind of policy will do to a nation as a whole is hard to predict. The protest movements and demonstrations in Norway and abroad are indications that the state is, in fact, in breach of its own population’s view on what is acceptable.

The title of my documentary film is taken from an utterance made by a social worker. She said that every child living in Norway has the right to live under the ‘Norwegian standard’; this standard being something very definite. It is clear to me when I read the texts constructed around Eva and her family that the preschool’s employees, and later the child welfare service’s view of these Czech immigrants, implied that Eva’s sons did not live under what they considered to be a high enough standard. The border that held Eva and her family isolated from the rest of society was perceived to be so strong that the authorities had an obligation to take the children out of their ‘isolation’ and place them with two different Norwegian families.

It must be pointed out that Eva’s sons did not live under conditions that in any way justified the state’s actions against them. As I said earlier, and as my film proves, the pattern in all the cases is the same. Whether the children taken come from, in a material sense, a wealthy Norwegian family or an immigrant family with less money, the system acts the same way. If someone in the state system feels concerned, the families and children will be repressed. Now Eva’s two boys are separated from their parents and their respective families. They are separated from each other as siblings, but they are ‘becoming Norwegians’. The social order is being maintained.

It is by no means easy to live in an airtight container where there are invisible borders between those who are born into the Norwegian standard – economically, socially and linguistically – and immigrants like Eva, who had to work long hours in the textile industry to secure her right to stay in Norway. Even though her sons were born in Norway the family was perceived to be different from the majority.

This may make children of foreign nationals feel like outsiders, but it should not be an argument for the state of Norway to forcefully remove David and Denis and assimilate them, depriving them of their mother’s love, and their Czech identity and language, so that the state can be in control of the process that is to turn these two boys into ‘good, productive Norwegians’.

The text at the museum asks us to imagine Franz Kafka’s childhood and see it through a veil of fear and guilt. The texts in Eva´s case describe her sons’ experiences when they were taken from their family without any warning and placed in foster care. The total lack of understanding these children have met with from the people in the state apparatus is almost unbearable when one discerns the children’s point of view. These texts are documentary evidence that one can use when imagining what Eva’s two little birds might have felt – both fear and guilt – when captured in the golden cage of the Norwegian standard.

The downside to this kind of politics is a lack of understanding of the individual and the rights of the individual. There is a strong consensus in Norway; a monophony that is surprising to researchers. Perhaps one can interpret protests in the Czech Republic against the treatment of Eva and her sons as a form of disbelief. To strip two underaged Czech citizens of their right to have contact with their biological family without proof of neglect is not what one expects from a democratic nation in Europe. It might be something one would expect from a totalitarian regime, but not the democratic nation we perceive ourselves to be.

I think maybe the protests and a closer look from other nations that are now taking on Norway will reveal the actual social machinery – the state apparatus – hidden beyond the beautiful exterior. Perhaps we will discover that the official presentation of Norway is in conflict with what Norway really is. The official (fairy)tale showing Norway as a harmonious nation may just be an illusion that is used to cover up the system to the outside world. We may discover that Norway is not worthy of the status and standing it has as a perceived upholder of human rights.

If one tries to answer the old questions – who, what, where, when, how and why – in view of child welfare services and the nation’s obligations and ethical stance to “weaken the family’s power and freedom” there is a consensus in this country that the greatest danger a child is subjected to is its parents. And strangely enough, it is the mothers who represent the greatest threat to their children. As is shown, both in the single cases and the national narrative, it is a great fear among the social scientists – the architects behind the politics – that the mother’s psychological conditions might influence the children in a negative way.

Here one must take an even larger construction of stories and narratives into consideration when one tries to find out why this is so. I keep thinking of a book by Salman Rushdie I read many years ago, Shame, and how the need to control women´s sexuality stems from the need to control resources. Controlling the ‘machine’ that produces ‘the nation’s gold’ – the most valuable product we know, children – is not a new invention in society. What might not be obvious is that the policy of controlling children by forcefully taking them away from their mothers is considered normal in a country like Norway.

In Eva’s case, it is both fascinating and deeply frightening to see how her narrative has been constructed. And for me as a writer, the hardest thing with working on these cases – and what upsets me the most – is the obvious prejudice behind the construction of texts that form the evidence against parents and children like Eva and her sons. The total lack of sobriety and decency in the forming of sentences that are to prove these people are guilty of what the repressive apparatus have accused them brings me back to the witch-hunting era. Any sign is to be interpreted in the worst kind of way. Also, signs of love and affection are filtered through what one might call a delusional system until the world is turned upside down.

For me, this is a process which makes the accusers become the criminals.

Eva Michaláková has decided to fight for her and her sons’ rights. She has taken on a system that, for over a century, has systematically taken children away from their families to be brought up by the state. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a saying that might apply to official Norwegian family politics. But this only applies if the intention is, in fact, to rescue children from abusive parents, and in turn this intention has failed to secure the children’s rights.

If the goal is to secure a stable workforce and uphold strong social control the premise changes. There is a huge difference in an ideology constructed to protect the individual from an abusive power structure and the opposite: an ideology that defends the power structure against an individual. In this case, a child.

This is, of course, also a philosophical question: who has ownership of a human being? It might be that the majority of Norwegians actually find that it is the state that owns the children, and that the majority think it is OK to give up parental rights to the state apparatus so that society as a whole can decide how, where and by whom children are to be raised.

But this has not been a clear political idea discussed and voted on in a democratic fashion. Therefore, one can state that the parents have ownership of the child, and that this principal is applicable to all parents. This means that the parents have a say in the purpose of the child’s life. It might be that the parents find it problematic that the child is to be born into a state to become a mere productive part of the apparatus. It might be that parents make room for their children to develop into individual human beings with wants and needs of their own.

In Prague, lawyers, politicians and academics from all over Europe were discussing these matters. Some of the families that had lost their children to the authorities, both in the UK and in Norway, were also present to share their stories.

At the start of the event I was not aware that Eva’s two sons had been taken by the Norwegian state, so I was not prepared to film her. But when she took to the podium I did my best to catch her speech on tape.

After her speech, Eva Michaláková broke down in tears, as did many of the participants at the event. As a Norwegian I felt ashamed. Eva’s father and I talked during a break. He reminds me of my father, and I can only imagine the hurt this family has endured for years now.

The press was present at the event and Eva had to give interviews. The Norwegian lawyer attending the event was also interviewed by two TV channels. They wanted answers as to why Eva’s children could be taken from her in this matter. This is a question I have tried to answer in my film.

I spent time with Eva in 2015 and visited her where she now lives. I have talked to people who know her very well. I know the texts that construct her story, and I have seen how she connects with children.

Eva Michaláková’s case is what we consider a miscarriage of justice (a Justizmord). There is no doubt about that, and this will be proven in my documentary film. In the meantime, the years pass by and Eva’s two boys have been away from their mother for so long now. The damage that has been done to her and her children cannot be rectified, but this does not mean that we should give up the fight against what comes across as an undemocratic regime. It is very important that an alternative version of the official story is constructed, and it is important that this version is based on factual and proven incidents, which is not the case with the version the Norwegian court system upholds as the truth.

Prof Linneberg says that a lie does not become more truthful even when it is repeated again and again. This utterance is indeed valid in this particular case.

Eva works as a teacher’s assistant here in Norway, and she does a great job for our children. It´s too bad the Norwegian state doesn’t grant Eva’s two sons the privilege and pleasure of her presence, which our children have the advantage of.

[Photo: Pixabay.com / CC0 Creative Commons]