2015 02 03. The years-long tensions over the troubles many Lithuanian parents have in Norway reached new heights this week after a Lithuanian family was unsuccessful in repatriating its child from Norway to Lithuania.
In a far-from-unique case the family, living in Norway, had its child forcibly taken away by authorities (Barnevernet childcare agency) to a foster home without a comprehensive reason. Fearing for their child they decided to bring him to Lithuania (via Sweden), which Norway considered illegal and requested Swedish authorities to intervene. Sweden took the boy at a ferry to Lithuania and sent him to Norway, leading to Lithuanian diplomatic protests as the boy is a Lithuanian citizen.
Children taken away for cultural differences
With up to 15% of Lithuanian population emigrated to Western Europe (50 000 of them to Norway), the attitudes of authorities there directly affect many Lithuanian families. The strict Norwegian child-rearing laws that leave little for parental discretion have been especially reviled.
Such laws disproportionately affect immigrants, whose culture and parenting philosophies differ from the Norwegian one. For example, Indian children have been separated from family by Norwegian authorities because their parents slept in the same bed and fed them with bare hands (both are the usual cultural practice in India) [source]. Similar situations affecting their nationals led to diplomatic protests by India, Russia, the Czech Republic and other countries while now Lithuanian diplomacy has also intervened, although the intervention is locally criticised as far too lenient.
Lithuanian child-rearing system is generally far more libertarian than the Norwegian one and the education system more competitive, oriented towards knowledge and laboriousness. Norwegian system, on the other hand, puts far more emphasis on making the children more similar to each other ("overcoming" the gender, ethnicity, and other differences).
This is enforced so strictly that children could be taken to foster homes if they eat at home (before/after school/kindergarten) instead of having lunch together with classmates. According to the Lithuanian embassy in Norway, telling a child to do household chores, not making him/her wear winter clothing deemed "warm enough" and even "not buying him/her a toy" could lead to at least temporary removal of a child from a family.
Norway's immigrants also claim indirect discrimination as they tend to be more closely watched by the authorities with any "deviation" in child's behavior blamed on parents and a possible reason for taking the child away.
Barnevernet has been ignoring Lithuanian childcare authorities in requests for cooperation, while the embassy possibilities to help are limited. In a recent interview, even the Lithuanian first secretary to Norway suggested that the parents "could leave Norway and [should] do so quickly" if their child is with them at the time despite the recent problems with Barnevernet. The embassy confirms that leaving the country would not be impeded.
Facts and conspiracy theories
The view of some childcare specialists who support Barnavernet work is that it is a natural continuation of increasing children's rights and "progressive values". The opposing view, popular outside Norway, claims that such "social engineering" policies are overprotective and severely breach children rights on themselves.
Discrimination accusations aside, even if the goodwill of all childcare workers would be assumed, the child is usually left traumatized after being suddenly transferred from his/her parents to an unknown family or foster home of different culture. In comparison, Lithuanian adoption system (and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) prefers adoption / foster care within the same group of relatives or at least the same ethnic, religious and linguistic community. The calls of Lithuanian authorities to transfer children from Norway to their relatives in Lithuania have been ignored, however.
Norwegian policies have been called "state-sponsored kidnappings" in Lithuanian media editorials which have also accused Norway of seeking to "increase its population this way". Some rich Norwegians prefer adoption to giving birth, while the legalization of same-sex marriages increased the number of couples that could adopt children but not conceive them naturally (in one of the most-publicised cases a Lithuanian kid taken by Barnevernet was adopted by a lesbian couple).
Furthermore, adoption is claimed to be a big industry in whole Western Europe, with a private consultation and legal help services effectively allowing to choose a child from catalogs "based even on eye color". Foster parents are said to receive a Norwegian state support of ~4000 USD a month.
While some of these claims may be overtly suspicious, others are hard to deny or disprove. Even though the Norwegian courts have largely sided with Barnevernet in controversial cases, they still awarded 220 000 000 USD in compensation payments to children abused by the Barnevernet itself. A 2005 report by United Nations has criticized Norway on the issue. The total number of children that were either removed from parents or faced temporary restrictions in Norway is believed to be at ~61 000 in the past 5 years, which amounts to ~6% of the total under-18 population and is an exceptionally large number for an upheaval-free society.
Stories that shock Lithuania
Here are just a few of the emotional stories that now dominate Lithuanian media and cause Lithuanians to write hundreds of comments in social media (names removed):
*In the recent case where a Lithuanian child has been returned from Sweden to Norway, the mother informed a doctor about the problems her child have with increased urination. Doctor suspected a psychological problem, which automatically involves Barnevernet. Having put the family on watch the Barnevernet later noted that this child missed two days at school as he visited his relatives in Lithuania. After complaints from school, the child was taken away from family. The main reason given for not returning the child in later stages was the "danger that the child will be returned to Lithuania". [source]
*In another case, Norwegian authorities taken a child from a Lithuanian family without a warning giving the sole reason that incorrect parental care was reported by unspecified people. The mother, who initially cooperated with the Norwegian authorities hoping to return her child, was even told by the Barnevernet officials that they now believed she is a good mother, but the court decision (adopted 1,5 months after the child was taken away) could not be reversed. Having lost hope the mother illegally took back her child after 1 year and repatriated to Lithuania. The child was left especially traumatized by the experience. [source]
*Norwegian authorities took a child from a mixed Lithuanian-Norwegian family. The Lithuanian wife came under Barnevernet investigation after she confessed a doctor while being pregnant that she used to visit a psychologist in the past after a shock of finding a person close to her dead. After the baby was born the family was told to live in a purposeful "family home" for a month. The child was finally taken away after the Norwegian husband was attacked on street one evening and the family called doctors. The Barvernevet claimed that the wife may have beaten the husband, even though there was never any formal accusations or investigation. After unsuccessful attempts to return their kid through Norwegian courts the family vowed to continue the legal battle up to the European Court of Human Rights (if needed) and expressed hopes to move to Lithuania after getting their child back. [source]
*A Lithuanian family was informed by Barnevernet that their daughter won't be coming back from school as she was put in foster care. The reasons claimed by Barnevernet included violence, alcoholism, and even cult membership. It turned out Barnevernet was told these allegations by father-in-law's wife because there had been a long animosity between the two families. Barnevernet, however, acted on the claims without investigating them as they were made by a close relative. While the family was later able to prove the stories as false, Barnevernet still did not return their daughter, alleging the family was forcing her to "learn too much". The reason for this: the girl was learning native Lithuanian language in addition to Norwegian school programs. Seeing (during the short allowed meetings) that their daughter was moved among multiple foster parents and traumatized, the family successfully illegally taken her back and returned to Lithuania in a single 3500 drive, even though they had a house in Trondheim and thought to stay there permanently. Ironically, the mother worked 20 years in a Lithuanian kindergarten and planned to do the same in Norway. [source]
In the online discussions, many Lithuanians show sympathy for the families affected, blaming the authorities. Some, however, suggest that such situations would become rarer if migrant parents would carefully study the local parenting regulations and then either follow them rigorously or move to another country.
Libertarian parenting enjoys Lithuanian support
The authoritarian Norwegian "child-rearing law" has effectively mobilized many thousands of Lithuanians to fight for maintaining the current libertarian child-rearing policy in Lithuania itself, fearing a gradual introduction of the "Norwegian system" that they see as discriminatory, bureaucratic, totalitarian, wasteful, unjustly limiting parental discretion and contrary to child's well-being.
The largest numbers of activist articles appeared after some Lithuanian politicians made moves to ban corporal punishment and children walking outside alone (both ideas imported from Western Europe).
The latter proposal contradicts the usual practice where city children walk alone to schools from ~8 years old; this is generally safe and thought by many parents to help a child learn to be independent. Moreover, the limits of parental discretion create further burdens on parents, which are already large enough to make some Lithuanians reconsider having children, leading to sub-replacement birth rates.
The critics also point out that the Barnevernet was also initially established in the 1950s to combat corporal punishment in Norway but eventually started curbing various non-standard upbringing practices even if there is no scientific evidence of them being harmful.
Lithuanian children's rights agencies do take children from truly abusive parents, but other than that parents are allowed to set their own system of rearing and educating children. The prevailing belief is that most parents know their own child the best and may decide what is the best for him/her. Equally prevailing is a distrust in state childcare institutions, where a human relation is thought to be unavoidably replaced by a dehumanized and traumatizing bureaucratic relation.
While, for example, in the United Kingdom a local family has recently been fined for spending schooltime traveling [source] (and in Norway, similar cases led to taking children to foster care), in Lithuania such parental practice is permitted and common. It would only cause a stir if the child would fall behind his/her peers and be unable to catch up, but even then the teachers would likely seek to talk to parents instead of fining them, let alone taking their child away.
A boy taken away for speaking only Lithuanian
While the problems of Lithuanian families in Norway are best known, relatively authoritarian child-rearing laws exist in some other Western European societies.
In another much-publicized case the United Kingdom childcare authorities took a Lithuanian child from his family because he "did not speak good enough English at the age of 3" (which supposedly meant parental neglect).
Such case seems to be especially baffling for Lithuanians as in Lithuania ethnic minorities even have schools that use their native languages as the medium of instruction (and learning the official language for non-natives is not expected that early).
In Western European countries such as France such concessions to non-native speakers would be unthinkable. While they are now used to racial and religious differences, linguistic differences are new in many places as previously the immigrants used to come from the former colonies, having a good command of official languages.
The recent wave of Eastern European migrants (among them Lithuanians) that are not fluent in local languages claim discrimination and negative stereotypes against them in Western Europe. They also note lack of protection from such intolerance compared to what the other immigrant communities enjoy. Many of the childcare-related cases specified in this article may be related to such prejudices, but "anti-Lithuanian discrimination" simply lacks the headline value "antisemitism" or "racism" has, leading to little interest from non-Lithuanian media or politicians.
Such situations have made an increasing number of Lithuanians to question the Western European human rights practices, which they had seen as an undisputable model throughout much of the post-1990 period. After all, the Lithuanian-style children rights and linguistic minority rights (developed during the nation's multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural history) may be more "liberal", "humane" and "inclusive" than many Western European counterparts.