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The 'Foster Parent Industry' of Norway

The case of the two Indian children who have been taken away in Norway by the welfare services from their biological parents is part of a larger phenomena - the "foster parent industry". The Nordic Committee for Human Rights, founded by professionals from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland has noted that this is a typical case of the Norwegian welfare state's policy of breaking up families and taking children into care. These children are invariably traumatised and become the future clients of an ever-expanding social welfare services network.

COMMENTARY

The ‘Foster Parent Industry’ of Norway

Vasanthi Raman

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industry with a network of foster parents who are paid handsomely for their “fostering”, and are supported by a large network of psycho logists who provide the required reports. Generally, it is the most vulnerable families, the poor and the immigrants who fall easy prey to this

The case of the two Indian children who have been taken away in Norway by the welfare services from their biological parents is part of a larger phenomena – the “foster parent industry”. The Nordic Committee for Human Rights, founded by professionals from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland has noted that this is a typical case of the Norwegian welfare state’s policy of breaking up families and taking children into care. These children are invariably traumatised and become the future clients of an ever-expanding social welfare services network.

Vasanthi Raman (vraman06@gmail.com) is convenor, Forum for Creches and Childcare Services and visiting fellow, Centre for Women’s Development Studies, Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
March 10, 2012

T
he case of the Indian children in Norway who have been taken away by the state welfare services from their parents is indeed getting curiouser and curiouser. Apparently the Indian parents are not good parents according to the standards prevalent in Norway and the Child Welfare Services (CWS) decided to remove the children from their custody and hand them over to foster care on grounds of “emotional disconnect”. The Indian couple has denied this. They say that the issue is one of cultural differences regarding norms of parenting. However, even the issue of “cultural differences”, simple enough to understand, conceals far more than it explains. The latest in the drama is that the Norwegian child services will judge the psychological state of the children’s uncle and his suitability to be their guardian.

The Malevolent State?

Much has been written about the CWS in Norway and Sweden and their dubious reputation in regard to issues of child protection. The present case of the Indian children is not the first and may not be the last. For one, a critical issue that emerges is the role of the State. Is the state, in this instance the welfare state, one that many saw as essentially progressive and which took care of the citizens’ basic needs of healthcare and education, now turning into a nightmare? Is it becoming a parent and not a very benevolent one at that? From all accounts, it appears that parents are terrified of the CWS and their personnel. It would seem that it is an industry wherein “work” has to be found for the ever-expanding

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industry. Needless to say, there must be motivated social workers who are sincerely committed to the cause of children.

The Nordic Committee for Human Rights (NCHR), founded by professionals from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland in 1996, with the express mandate of defending the basic human rights of children and families has noted that these countries have a long history of taking children into custody. The NCHR’s sharp observations in the present Indian case are extremely significant. It notes that this is a typical case of the Norwegian welfare state’s policy of breaking up families and taking children into care. These children are invariably traumatised and become the future clients of an ever-expanding social welfare services network. What is disturbing is the role of the courts and their jurisdiction over children who are Indian nationals, indicating that they are being covertly adopted by foster parents. Thus they insidiously become part of the foster home “industry”. The Norwegian state’s policies have come in for serious criticism from international quarters as well, with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) committee expressing serious concern in 2005 “at the number of children being removed from families and put in foster homes in Norway”. The committee has gone on to state that Norway must protect the natural family environment and send children to foster homes only as a last resort and in the best interests of the child.

Miscarriage of Justice

The assumption underlying the policies of the Norwegian welfare state (and other Nordic countries as well) is that

COMMENTARY

the state is the final arbiter of what is in the interests of the child, with families and parents having little or no role in the matter. The personnel of the CWS actually decide the fate of children and families who for a variety of reasons are vulnerable, be they the poor or the migrants. There are a plethora of cases of parents fighting for the custody of their children over many years, in most cases unsuccessfully, and in some cases leading to suicide and/or nervous breakdown. What is disturbing is that while the state’s policies are overzealous in protecting the interests of children from abuse on the part of their natural families, there seems to be little or no protection of children from abuse by the foster families. The arbitrariness and impunity of the state is the issue with there being little scope for redressal from miscarriage of justice. Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights guarantees the right to private and family life and yet the Nordic welfare states are violating those very rights. Thus we have on the one hand social welfare policies that ensure that basic healthcare and education and care of the aged and on the other, the pheno menon of an extremely intrusive state, specifically in the case of children.

We find a strange inversion of norms wherein the right to family life and privacy which has been enshrined in the liberal notions of rights is now being inverted and the state (the welfare state at that) is now the repository and arbiter of rights. Is this a new development? Or is it that a more benevolent version of the welfare state (that most of us are familiar with and would even uphold) has now given way to this macabre version under the impact of the deepening crisis of late capitalism? For many, particularly in the third world, the Scandinavian welfare state has almost been a kind of model. But recent developments following this case surely would initiate a serious review.

Demographic Factor

There is another set of important social developments in the west that needs to be considered: the demographic changes, i e, the declining birth rate and increased life expectancy leading to an ageing population which has led to an increased interest in the phenomenon of childhood, the fragmentation of the family as a unit and its increasing existence as just a coalescence of individuals and the exponential rate of change that is all pervasive. What is significant is that this declining birth rate especially affects the white populations while the non-white, immigrant populations, who are generally the underclass in European societies do not exhibit these trends. This declining birth rate of the white European populations generates anxiety and paranoia about preserving their “culture” in a future that might be dominated by non-white immigrants. The policies of these nations towards children of immigrants can therefore be viewed partly from this context. There have also been debates about the “cultural reprogramming” of such children. Do these developments play a role in undergirding the policy assumptions of the Nordic welfare states? Many would argue that they do and that what we have is a strange combination of the political economy of the welfare services industry and an underlying racism with a strong anti-poor bias.

What are the implications of all this for the Indian government and for Indians in general? There is of course a clear case of the issue of sovereignty of the Indian parents and the two children, which the government is seized of. But the wider implications of the issue of the welfare of families and children belonging to the vast underprivileged and vulnerable sections of our society need to be given careful thought. Given that many of our child rights organisations are overly conscious of the UNCRC and not enough about the rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution, some issues need to be kept in mind.

One of the significant features of the UNCRC is that it attempts to redefi ne the relationship of the family to the child and of the family to the public sphere, specifically the state and government. In fact, what the UNCRC attempts to do is to unsettle at a very fundamental level the complex historically evolved and socioculturally specific relationships between

(a) the individual and the group, (b) the child and the family, and of both to the wider social structures be it clan, tribe, caste, or the state. An approach which bypasses intermediary institutions and structures and their complex linkages (i e, that between the child, family, wider kin-structures, community, wider national society) can have serious consequences and will lead to further traumatisation of children and families.

Those of us in India who are dealing with increasing sections of the marginalised and vulnerable populations have upheld the responsibility of the state in the provisioning of the basic services for both children and families, the thrust being that families have to be made viable in the face of the intensifying pauperisation and extreme distress. Basically, the enabling role of the state has to be upheld. Fortunately, so far the Indian government in its policy thrust in the field of children’s rights has stated that institutionalisation of children has to be the last resort. The fact that the measures that are part of government policy have been only insuffi ciently implemented is another matter and need to be addressed seriously.

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March 10, 2012 vol xlviI no 10

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