BLOGG: A new study shows surprising findings on citizens confidence in the Norwegian child protection system.
The Norwegian child protection system is under strong scrutiny by the European court of human rights with over 30 child protection cases being communicated to the Norwegian State the last couple of years. Individuals complain that Norway has violated their right to respect for family life under Article 8 and/ or violations of their right to due process under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
For several years the system has also been criticized by international and national mass media, and the Norwegian word for child protection – barnevern – is said to be the most known Norwegian word across the world. The massive critique would be expected to have some impact on citizens confidence in the system and its decision makers, and the immediate assumption would be that confidence in the system would decrease.
Confidence in the system
At the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism we have studied the Norwegian population’s trust in the child protection system. In 2014 and in January 2020 we asked a representative sample of the Norwegian population about their confidence in the system. The questions we asked were the following:
Please tell us how much confidence you, yourself, have in:
- The child welfare agencies that shall protect children
- The child welfare workers that are working at these agencies
- The judges in court that make decisions about child removals
For each of the statements, the respondents could choose one of the following answer options: “a great deal”, “quite a lot”, “some”, “very little”, and “unsure”.
An interesting, but also surprising, finding is that there is an increase in the level of confidence in the child protection system and its decision makers, see table 1 below. In 2014 around 50% of a representative sample of the population expressed that they had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the child protection agency and its decision makers (see Table 1). In 2020, more than 60% of the population stated the same.
The regression analysis show that young persons and people with higher education have significantly more confidence in the system, see table 2 below. The same two correlations were found in the survey data from 2014, in which also people being politically left oriented had higher confidence in the system (see Juhasz & Skivenes 2016). The impact of education level on trust in public administration is also evidenced in a Scottish study of the views of the general population about social services .
Why then would criticism of the Norwegian child protection system go alongside higher degree of trust in the system? Of course, it may be other mechanisms that drive confidence in a system than criticism, but the premise here is that critique may be a plausible driver for trust and mistrust. We have not studied the role of critique and confidence, and do not have data to confirm our discussion, but speculating on possible explanations, I can think of four reasons for an increased confidence in the child protection system.
Four possible explanations
First, the debates and the criticism in social and mass media may have increased people’s awareness about children at risk and their living situation, and that there is a system that is responsible for protecting this group of children. People that believe the state should protect children and prioritize children´s right above parental rights when push comes to shove, may have become clearer in their views about this when being exposed to the critique in the mass media.
Second, the increased confidence in the system may be due to an increased child-centric orientation in Norwegian society. Admittedly not systematically documented, child-centrism is evident with a new article § 104 in the Constitution about respect for children; increased participation of children in various public systems; changes in the child protection legislation introducing “love” as a feature of the law (§1-1); public information from central government directed towards children; very little acceptance of corporal punishment in the Norwegian population, to mention four examples. Furthermore, a study of 54,000 children (ages 8-12 years) across 16 countries examined their subjective perceptions of children’s rights (Kosher & Ben-Arieh, 2017), displayed huge country differences. When asked: “I think in my country adults in general respect children’s rights,” 83% of Norwegian children agreed whereas at the other end of the continuum, only 35% of children from South Korea said the same (ibid 2017, p. 263).
Third, the criticism has also resulted in arguments and information that explain and defend the child protection system and its functioning. For example, the court system in Norway is ranked as one of the best in the world in terms of rule of law, and similarly that Norway is ranked high in terms of protection of children’s rights (KidsRightIndex 2019) and highest of 180 countries on the child flourishing index made by WHO/UNICEF Lancet commission (2020).
Fourth, it may also be that the child protection system benefits from the generally high level of trust Norwegians have in their government and their public administration. Since the confidence level has been high and stable for many years, it is protected against waves of criticism. In a study of a case with massive criticism of the police in Finland, Kääriäinen and colleguaes (2016) found that confidence in the police in the population did not decrease. They point to similar findings after the terror attack in Norway 22 July 2011 and the criticism of the police. They conclude that trust “seems to be rather durable as a country-level phenomenon.” (Ibid. p. 83).
To conclude, obviously more research is necessary, but overall, we have a situation in which the Norwegian population has not only maintained its confidence in the child protection system since 2014, but we witness an increased confidence level in the system and its decision makers.
-  Stang, Edda (2018). Resistance and protest against Norwegian Child Welfare Services on Facebook – different perceptions of child-centring. Nordic Social Work Research . Vol. 8. Stang, Edda (2018). Ethical decision-making in internet research ? Investigating protest groups against Child Welfare Services on Facebook. Qualitative Social Work
-  Holm-Hansen, J. (2017) «Polish attempts of understanding child protection service», Klassekampen. Available at: https://www.klassekampen.no/article/20170128/PLUSS/170129745 (accessed: 06 April 2019).
-  McCulloch, T. and S. Webb (2019). What the Public Think about Social Services: A Report from Scotland British Journal of Social Work (2019) 0, 1–21 doi: 10.1093/bjsw/bcz090
-  The country rankings (high to low) were: Norway, Turkey, Malta, Nepal, England, Estonia, Germany, Romania, Spain, Israel, Colombia, Algeria, Poland, Ethiopia, South Africa, and, South Korea.
-  Kääriäinen, J. P.Isotalus & G. Thomassen (2016) Does public criticism Erode trust in the police? The case of Jari Aarnio in the Finnish news media and its effects on the public’s attitudes towards the police, Journal of Scandinavian Studies in Criminology and Crime Prevention, 17:1, 70-85, DOI: 10.1080/14043858.2016.1144315