Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism Bergen

Blogpost: Wrong direction for the Norwegian child protection?

BLOG: There has been a significant reduction in child protection help and interventions towards children and families in vulnerable situations in Norway over the past five years. This is a democratic problem. There is little evidence to suggest that these changes are politically driven and legitimized.

Blogpost by Professor Marit Skivenes, Director of Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism.

The Norwegian child protection system has long been in line with other Nordic countries and central European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands when it comes to the level of children who cannot live at home, and that child protection should first and foremost provide help and support to children and families as far as possible.

Extensive changes

We are now witnessing extensive changes that can have major consequences for children and families in vulnerable situations, and that move us away from countries that we are usually in partnership with. There is:

  • A significant reduction in care orders. In 2017, there were 926 children who had care orders issued for them, while in 2022 there were 548 children.
  • A significant reduction in assistance measures. According to the latest KOSTRA figures as of 31.12.22, there is a 25% decrease in the number of children receiving assistance measures from the end of 2017 to the end of 2022.
  • A significant decrease in the number of adoption cases. In 2018, there were 65 adoption cases, while in 2021 there were 20.
  • A significant decrease in the number of emergency cases. In 2017, there were 1343 emergency orders, while in 2021 there were 694.
  • A significant increase in consent to care orders. In 2018, around 25% of care order cases in the board had consent, while in 2021 it was around 40%.

Democratic black hole
Extensive changes in such a short time would lead one to believe – and expect – that they are the result of politically anchored reforms. A marked reduction in service provisions and interventions from the child protection must then be a deliberate and desired restructuring of the child protection system in Norway? Because if not, it lacks political legitimacy. Then we face what the Swedish political scientist Bo Rothstein refers to as a democratic black hole. This is a situation where the practice field is disconnected from the democratic system and finds its own solutions and interpretations of which rights should be protected and which norms should apply.

Lack of political backing
However, it cannot be read from policy documents, parliamentary resolutions, or the new child protection law that efforts towards children and young people in vulnerable and difficult life situations should be reduced. On the contrary, the purpose clause from the 1992 law is maintained in the new law:

“The task of child protection is to ensure that children and young people who live in conditions that can harm their health and development receive necessary help, care, and protection, in due time. Children and young people shall be met with security, love, and understanding, and child protection shall contribute to ensuring that children and young people have good and safe upbringing conditions.” (§ 1-1)

It is also continued in the new law that children have the right to necessary child protection measures (§ 1-6), and the Supreme Court provides guidance that measures taken for children should be appropriate for the child concerned.

It is not plausible that the child protection reform that came into force on January 1, 2022, can explain the changes that I have pointed out, and the changes began long before 2022. [1]

The role of ECtHR

My hypothesis is that the changes in Norwegian child protection can be traced back to the convictions in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). [2] In recent years, Norway has been labeled as an “enfant terrible” in European child protection law. Norway has 27 decisions in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in the period 2015 – January 2023, where violations have been established for all or parts of the stated issues in 14 of the cases. The decisions have been criticized for deficiencies in decision-making grounds, balancing, and justifications, and that the state has not fulfilled the obligation to work for reunification (see, for example, HR-2020-661-S paragraph 112).

It is very serious to be convicted by the ECtHR for violations of human rights. As a result, clear changes have been made to the law related to the obligation to work for reunification and improve decision-making grounds. At the same time as errors have been identified, it has also been pointed out that Norwegian practice and regulations are in line with the ECtHR’s procedural requirements under Articles 6 and 8. The ECtHR has only occasionally criticized the procedural handling and has not criticized that custody has been taken. This is important information to include in discussions about what should be done in Norwegian child welfare.

Leaving the child centric path?
For some time, Norwegian child protection services have been described as child-centered, and Norway is one of the few countries to have made the Convention on the Rights of the Child national law, on par with the Constitution. [3] The Convention on the Rights of the Child of 1989 is a historic innovation that has given children individual rights, and the convention has universal support. All countries except the USA have ratified the Convention.

The Norwegian (and Nordic) welfare state has broad support, and its hallmark is that there should be equal opportunities for all. The most important building blocks are laid in childhood, and there is broad political support for ensuring that all children have good and safe childhood conditions.

Having the Convention on the Rights of the Child as applicable law is a commitment, and it challenges the traditional approach to the relationship between the state and families. The fact that children’s rights should be protected even in such difficult cases as child protection cases, where the state should – when necessary – ensure the child’s interests over the parents’ self-determination and autonomy, is both demanding and conflict-inducing.

The extensive and rapid changes that are now taking place make me deeply concerned. More thorough analyses of the development are required, but it is a warning when Norway, which has clearly stated that children’s rights require the child protection system to be available, now seems to be withdrawing from this responsibility. It is also a warning that Norway is now going in a different direction than other Nordic countries.

[1] The Child Protection Reform, also known as the Child Upbringing Reform, was adopted by the Norwegian Parliament in 2017 based on a proposal in Proposition 73 L (2016-2017). Central to the reform is strengthened municipal efforts for prevention and early intervention for children and families in need, which also means that the entire municipal sector will be responsible for families in difficult and vulnerable life situations that require help.

[2] At the DIPA Center (Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism), the significance of the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights), social movements, and opposition to child welfare and the welfare state are studied.

[3] Iceland, Sweden, and Mexico are the three other countries, and Scotland is said to shortly be next.

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