Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism Bergen

Justifying care order decisions in cases of violence

NEW ARTICLE: Audun Løvlie and Marit Skivenes examines the Norwegian County Social Welfare Board’s care order justifications in cases where children are subject to violence.

About one third of all referrals to the Norwegian Child Protection System concerns observed violence or fear of violence, including sexual abuse. Moreover, children and young people’s self-reporting indicate that one in five have experienced violence from a parent. In cases of violence, public authorities may issue care orders to ensure the safety and improve the living conditions of the child. Care orders are a particularly intrusive child protection intervention and a strong exercise of state power. While these measures are sometimes needed, few would disagree that the decisions need to be just, fair, and well-reasoned. So, how are care orders of children in cases about violence justified?

Pragmatic over ethical arguments

The article examines how the Norwegian County Social Welfare Boards justify care order decisions concerning violence. The County Social Welfare Boards are a court-like decision-making body that decides on all child protection interventions. Løvlie and Skivenes draw upon 94 anonymized, publicly available decisions including migrant and non-migrant families. Are the decisions based on pragmatic considerations or ethical norms? While common sentiments suggest that child protection and the child’s best interest decisions are rooted in discussions of ethical norms, Løvlie and Skivenes’ findings suggest otherwise.

– Prominent in the reasoning of the County Board’s justification are pragmatic arguments, which undercut expectations that the justifications are about ethical norms. In case-by-case assessments, we find that arguments largely focus on risk-levels, drawing on empirical evidence of violence, says Løvlie.

Løvlie and Skivenes also evaluate decisions based on what important accounts are considered. Decision-makers in the County Boards consider the parents’ ability to change their behavior, to meet the children’s needs, highlighting parental denial of violence and blaming the children.

– Our findings reveal that in more than half of the cases, the County Boards’ justification focuses on the parents’ denial and trivialization of violence, and in one-fifth of the cases, parents explain the situation by blaming the child. This is a known phenomenon in child protection cases, adds Løvlie.

Few differences between migrant and non-migrant cases

It has been a repeated suspicion that Norwegian child protection services are biased in their meeting with migrant families, lacking cultural sensitivity and having less regard for migrant children’s rights than non-migrant children’s rights. Yet, the article only finds some differences when it comes to how the County Board justifies care order decisions about violence.

–  The evidence we have does not substantiate that the County Board treat migrants and non-migrants differently. The minor difference in justifications largely relates to more evidence of severe direct violence in migrant cases, explains Løvlie.

The authors assume that child protection systems’ acceptance of parental violence will differ across countries. Given the exclusive focus on Norwegian care order decisions, examining country comparative material would be a fruitful avenue for further research.

The article is published in the Nordic Journal on Law and Society and is available Open Access by clicking the link below.

Løvlie & Skivenes (2021). Justifying interventions in Norwegian child protection – an analysis of cases of violence in migrant and non-migrant families. Nordic Journal on Law and Society Vol 04 (2), 1-41.

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