Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Trial in Norway

As is evident from the case of the Bhattacharyas and their two children in foster care in Norway, the country's Child Welfare Services is shrouded in secrecy and bureaucratic inscrutability. A recent report states that a Sri Lankan couple in Norway too are currently in a similar predicament - their teenaged children were forcibly separated from them last year and placed in foster care. Last November, the parents received a summons from the Child Welfare Services. When they arrived at the office, they found their children waiting there as well. The children had been taken out of class and escorted to the department office. The parents were summarily informed by the department that their parenting methods were inadequate, and their children were immediately placed in foster care - they too were separated and sent to two different homes - without any explanation. They are currently awaiting a review of their case. The children are allowed to meet their parents on scheduled dates, but the latter have recently been informed that their meetings are far too long for the children's own good. The children are perplexed and obviously traumatized. They cannot comprehend their situation at all and keep asking their parents to take them home.

Reading the report prepared by the department, the parents learned that the CWS believed that they did not know "how to raise" their children (contextual determinants unexplained) and that they gave their children "too much chocolate" - all apparently decisive factors in the children's forced dislocation from their family and home environment. Until recently, the Bhattacharyas remained entirely ignorant of the department's charges against them, but a newspaper report revealed a few weeks ago that the CWS had deemed them incapable of handling their children's "psychological stress", which had resulted in their children being forcibly taken away from them and placed in foster care.

A Norwegian academic published an essay in The Hindu a month ago and spoke with gratitude of the outrage in the Indian media over the treatment meted out to the Bhattacharyas and the consequent debate generated in Norway about its child-care system. She detailed the nuances of the state welfare systems supporting the cruel and arbitrary child laws in Norway (and in Scandinavian countries in general) and provided several other instances of forced institutionalization. She recounted a case in which the children of two Turkish-origin Norwegian parents were abducted from Turkey by the CWS and brought back to Norway to be placed in institutional care. The essay cited several other instances of bizarre and unwarranted state intervention. A Norwegian mother was once summoned by the department and warned about prospective punitive action against her because her son had painted in his art class a fishbowl with a goldfish in it - the department told her that they believed the goldfish in the bowl symbolically "represented" psychological entrapment and stress, and that she as a mother would lose custody of her child if he persisted in manifesting mental "trauma".

The Bhattacharyas' case, from all accounts, appears to be headed in their favour, largely due to the Indian government's intervention in the matter. The Sri Lankan parents whose children were taken away last year have no such leverage - they are officially Norwegian citizens. They have no choice but to follow the instructions of the CWS in filing their review petition.

I recently re-read Kafka's The Trial. The strangeness and cruelty of Kafka's dystopian world are manifest in the Norwegian state and its child-care apparatus. In the novel, K is thrust into an existential nightmare when he finds himself confronting an implacable and unfathomable judicial system, fighting a case against him that he knows absolutely nothing about. He is able to determine neither the allegations against him nor the means of redressal. Yet imperceptibly, he gradually plunges further and further into the bureaucratic labyrinth that threatens to overpower him. In the end, he is calmly executed by the nameless, faceless agents of the state, who know as little of his purported crime as K himself. He dies without ever discovering the charges against him.

The CWS in Norway accuses parents of unspecified crimes and then arbitrarily snatches their children away. These accusations of neglect, incapacity and irresponsibility eventually come undone when parents are told the specific instances on which the charges are based, charges that by any moral standard then appear baseless and dismissible - by that time, however, the children are already in foster care. Many are never returned to their parents.

The state's interventionism should never become so draconian as to dehumanize individual families and subject them to arbitrary destruction and dissolution. A state that intrudes so viciously into the realm of the personal is a state that threatens to become all-consuming, destroying the individual completely and abandoning all hopes of individual freedom and self-determination.