Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism Bergen

Assessments of future parenting

ARTICLE: New study presents needed insights into how legal decision-makers in Norway justify care orders of newborn children.

In Norway, legislations allows the Child Welfare Agency to remove newborn infants from their parents’ care while still at the hospital, and followingly place them in foster care by a care order decided in the County Social Welfare Board.

– This is a serious state intervention into the private sphere, but may also be completely necessary to safeguard a newborn from incapable parents. These decisions become particularly challenging when the child is the first born to the parents, and knowledge about actual parenting is lacking, explains PhD Candidate Ida B. Juhasz.

In an article published open access in Children and Youth Services review, Juhasz probes into how these legal child welfare decisions are reasoned and justified by the County Board.

She analyzes all (N = 19) written newborn care order decisions from 2016 decided by the County Board, where the parents had no previous children removed, thus being assessments of future parenting capacities.

Challenging discretionary decisions about risk

Despite there being few annual care orders of newborns made, compared to those of older children, they appear critical for those involved, as well as assumed to happen within a wide discretionary space with less case factors. The demographic involved are a particularly vulnerable subset within the child protection system, both the infants and their parents.

– My main findings is that the written judgements reveal the complexity of the parents’ problems, as well as lack of capacity to change. The cases were unitarily assessed at representing high levels of risk to the newborns, with most parents being surrounded by extensive problems and minimal change capacity, says Ida B. Juhasz.

Vital in the decisions were the types, duration and prevalence of the parents problems, including issues related to personality, social functioning and mental health, own problematic childhoods, intellectual disabilities and drug use, lasting for the most part since childhood and adolescence. However, there were large variations in the number of sources and contexts applied to justify the decisions.

Furthermore, three categories of change emerged throughout the analysis; the parents’ problematics most often appeared as permanent, a quarter as slow-moving, and a small number were transient, where some form of change was taking place.

Dense cases despite new parenthood

These decisions were rooted in assessments of future parenting, but the County Board appeared to mitigate this future uncertainty by invoking the parents’ childhoods, health and social welfare histories.

– Despite these being new family units and seemingly fresh child welfare cases, they were not new actors within the broader social welfare system. Most of these parents were, or had been, surrounded by social and health services and staff for years, most since early childhood and adolescence.  The reports and knowledge from these sources were used as indicators of future parenting, Juhasz explains.

She argues that based on this research, there is a need for transparency and clarity when making inferences from both past history and current observations to future parenting, as well as when assessing the capacity to change sufficiently.

Juhasz, Ida Benedicte (2020). Child welfare and future assessments – An analysis of discretionary decision-making in newborn removals in Norway. Children and Youth Services Review.


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