Why are so many parents in Norway claiming that the state is kidnapping their children? With a spike in cases in recent years and accusations of racial intolerance, Dateline asks whether these children are being saved, or stolen.
Norway has a dark secret that's tearing families apart. In this progressive, wholesome country, hundreds of parents are fighting against the state - fighting for the right to raise their own children. I'm on my way to meet a couple whose battle with this country's Child Protection Services has changed their lives forever. Their babies were taken just hours after they were born.
NATASHA MYRA OLSEN, MOTHER (Translation): We’d been so looking forward to seeing these girls for so many months.
Natasha was due to give birth to twins.
NATASHA MYRA OLSEN (Translation): We sang to them we talked to them…
Erik was about to become a new father. It was going to be one of the happiest days of their lives.
NATASHA MYRA OLSEN (Translation): We had seen them on ultrasound. I felt all the movements in my tummy.
But they were robbed of everything they had looked forward to, when Norway's Child Protection Service, known as Barnevernet, showed up at the hospital.
ERIK MYRA OLSEN, FATHER (Translation): After the girls arrived, we had a very nice time with them at the hospital for about four hours before Barnevernet came and took them away. And from there it turned to hell.
NATASHA MYRA OLSEN (Translation): The hardest thing was to come home empty handed after all the pain. It’s a sadness and a sense of loss that no one can understand.
So what reason did Barnevernet give for taking away the baby girls?
NATASHA MYRA OLSEN (Translation): Barnevernet told me that I had been diagnosed as mentally disabled, and that I could not take care of the children.
When Natasha was 13, her adoptive mother claimed she had a mental disability, to get welfare payments. Barnevernet then used this fraudulent document against her.
NATASHA MYRA OLSEN (Translation): At first I was very sad that they used this… that they used this as a reason to take my girls, because that is absolutely not what I was like.
The twins, only hours into the world, were placed in foster care. The plan for them was permanent adoption. Natasha was determine to rewrite the past. She set about proving she was a capable mother with the help of lawyer, Astrid Gjoystdal.
ASTRID GJOYSTDAL, LAWYER (Translation): I started digging a bit, like a detective. And I find out that she’s never been diagnosed. They ran IQ tests. The results were verified, and Natasha was diagnosed as having no intellectual disability. It would be seven months before they knew the outcome of their case. There are many stories like Natasha and Erik's. About 1500 children a year are removed from their parents. Between 2008 and 2013, emergency care removals increased by 70% and while most of these are for valid reasons, a growing number of parents claim their kids were removed without cause.
I have come to Trondheim to meet a group of parents. They have personal stories of losing custody of their children. Today, they are seeking advice from lawyers and psychologists on how to win their kids back.
EINAR SALVESEN, PSYCHOLOGIST (Translation): The task is, if you can call it a task, to share experiences, if you want to share and listen to each other.
ASTRID GJOYSTDAL (Translation): Your child was taken when she was two days old, so the danger is she could be adopted out.
KEN JOAR OLSEN, FATHER: We never had the chance to even prove that we were bad parents or good parents. They take her, two days old, with the risk of future neglect.
Barnevernet says they only remove kids for serious violence and abuse - children who are at immediate risk. But these parents say they have been harshly judged, told they lack parenting skills.
MONICA FRIDTJOFSEN, MOTHER: The house is dirty, the health is not good. There are many things that I have proved the opposite.
ASTRID GJOYSTDAL (Translation): I think you could examine any Norwegian family and find little mistakes that you could turn into something bigger.
WOMAN (Translation): I mean everything you do can be seen as a failure of care.
The organiser of today's meeting is a Government insider, turned whistleblower Einar Salveeon. He's one of 170 professionals who petitioned the Government declaring that the child protection system is deeply flawed.
EINAR SALVESEN: According to research, 80% of the system is working well. But, then 20% is not working and you know that it's a disaster for the families and the child.
He's worked as a consultant psychologist for Barnevernet and now for parents like these.
EINAR SALVESEN: I have had myself personal cases where I see that the Government have taken the children away without good reason. It is traumatising. The children are traumatised the family. What shall we call that? They are stolen children, of course.
It's not just small groups of disgruntled parents accusing the system of stealing their kids. In the last few months the battle between parents and Barnevernet has gone global. A family of Pentacostal Christians had their five children taken away last November. Religious communities around the world rallied in support.
MAN: We want your voice to be heard all the way to Norway. Give them back!
Echoes of a Stolen Generation even resonated from the streets of Brisbane. The Bodnariu children were taken away because of an alleged smacking in the home. Protesters argue it's another weak reason for taking children away.
WOMAN: Stop Barnevernet. Enough is enough. Enough is enough… You can see many, many people who have been hurt, so many children who are removed and hurt.
WOMAN 2: In Syria, now there is war, but here, they are killing the family!
Some families feel that racial intolerance is a big part of their experience. Other countries even accuse Barnevernet of stripping children of their cultural identity.
NEWS REPORT: The Czech President lashed out at the Norwegian foster care system comparing it to Lebensborn - that was the Nazi racial breeding program.
EINAR SALVESEN: I think that immigrants are particularly frightened about the child protection officers. They are more exposed to the child protection's interventions than other families.
REPORTER: So this is where you live?
SAMSON DE JENE, FATHER: Yes. This is my house. And I have been living here for four months.
Samson's originally from Ethiopia, but Oslo has been home for most of his life. He moved into this small bedsit to save money so he can keep fighting through the courts to win his kids back.
REPORTER: Is that you?
SAMSON DE JENE: That's me, yeah. That's me.
His kids were taken away two years ago. Like most cases it's not a simple story, but Samson feels at the centre of his battle is racism.
SAMSON DE JENE: But unfortunately, there is people who misuse their power and who don't have enough knowledge of other cultures, other people, who are very judgemental. This is very, very sad.
He became the main carer for his kids when his marriage broke down. But when the kids were living with their mum temporarily, Barnevernet turned up and took them away.
SAMSON DE JENE: The reason they have given is that the kids need help and the situation for the kids they are living in is not good enough. That's the reason they have given me and that's why they had to take them from their mum. But they haven't given me any reason why they didn't consider me for the full-time custody of the kids. When I see kids on the street, when I hear, especially when kids say "Papa", then it like something struck my heart. Everything reminds me of my kids, yes.
Samson's educated, Christian and has a good job as a social worker. In fact, he used to work for Barnevernet. But he's having a hard time convincing them that he's a good parent, because of something his daughter said. She told her new foster family that her parents had spanked her at home.
SAMSON DE JENE: The mum have admitted that she has slapped on the bottom. But in my case, I have never slapped them. Never. My background plays a big matter, when it comes to violence, because automatically when a person is from Africa, it's very common that people think that, oh, these people spank their kids. But that's not the case.
It's hard to know exactly what's gone on inside Samson's home. Barnevernet won't comment on individual cases, so I can only hear his side of the story. But I want to hear Barnevernet's response to these allegations of racism. I get the opportunity to ask a regional head of the Child Protection Service, Gunnar Toresen. He's dropping in to meet with former foster kids.
REPORTER: What we are hearing is that children are being stolen from their parents for cultural reasons.
GUNNAR TORESEN, BARNEVERNET REGIONAL MANAGER: It's been said that Norwegian welfare is hunting for foreign children. In Norway, it's unacceptable to punish children physically, even if you come from another culture. That doesn't mean that we sort of take away all children who are physically punished, but in my opinion, the allegations in the international cases are wrong.
These teenagers are discussing their thoughts on how to improve the child protection system.
GUNNAR TORESEN (Translation): We have always considered ourselves to be the ones on the children’s side, the ones who protected the children.
Gunnar accepts that the difficult process of removing kids isn't always perfect.
GUNNAR TORESEN: I have no trouble understanding that it's the worst thing that can happen to you as a parent, is that your child is taken away and I do also understand that sometimes in this very difficult process we make errors. But I do believe, after so many years in this field, that the worst mistake that the child welfare does is sometimes we wait too long to take a child out and they have been badly hurt.
The young people that Gunnar has been talking to have lived through the child protection system, they have their own ideas on what's working and what's not.
ANNIKA (Translation): The reason why so many people are angry at Barnvernet is often the urgency of the move because often the police are showing up, it’s complete chaos and you don’t know anything.
These guys are now part of an organisation called the Change Factory. Their mission is to give children a voice by sharing their experiences and knowledge with policymakers. They feel in the current debate, too much focus is given to what parents say.
BOY (Translation): I remember in my own experience I didn’t know what options I had. If the child says he wants to move that’s his right. He has to be allowed to move if he thinks his parents are bad
ANNIKA (Translation): When adults are asked what’s wrong with Barnevernet they don’t say “you didn’t cooperate will with the children” they say “you didn’t cooperate well with us” but it’s actually a CHILD protection service.
These kids say it was right to move them out of home, away from abuse, neglect or violence and say they have only heard the same from other foster kids. Violence is a serious and common reason for removing kids, but one of the grey areas seems to be the issue of spanking. Norway is listed as one of 42 countries where spanking is illegal. Australia is not on that list. Spanking refers to any sort of physical punishment, Barnevernet says it would have to be very serious for them to take kids away.
ANDERS HENRIKSEN, BARNEVERNET DIRECTOR: In Norway, children are not being placed under emergency decisions due to slapping or things like that. We are talking about severe deficiencies. We are talking about children who are at an immediate risk.
But psychologist and Barnevernet whistleblower, Einar Salvesen says he's seen it work very differently.
EINAR SALVESEN: In Norway today the situation is like this - if you spank your child, your child will be or can be removed permanently from you, and you will see them twice a year - two hours under strict conditions, or maybe four times a year if you're lucky.
EINAR SALVESEN (Translation): There is too little emphasis of the consequences when a child is taken from the home.
New parents, Natasha and Erik had their twins taken four hours after they were born. The case was dropped, and they just got their twins back after seven months apart.
NATASHA MYRA OLSEN (Translation): We’ve lost so many months with the girls and this first year of their lives is extremely important.
ERIK MYRA OLSEN (Translation): The girls were kidnapped. Barnevernet should apologise, it’s common courtesy to admit your mistake. When everyone knows something is wrong.
They might have their children back, but their parenting skills are now under observation. It seems like a happy ending, but I'll find out later there's more heartache to come. In any country the removal of children makes parents angry with the system. But I want to find out more about what the experience is like for kids. One of the parents I met in Trondheim has invited me to her home, to meet her children, all six of them. They were recently returned home after three and a half months under Barnevernet foster care.
MONICA FRIDTJOFSEN: Three and a half months they will remember forever. That's the toughest time in their life. I’m sure I will make them be safe again, but it will take time.
Monica has a history with the child protection service. As a single mum, they have checked up on her over the years but last November they showed up suddenly, taking the two youngest kids from home and three of her children from the classroom.
MONICA FRIDTJOFSEN: They just took the children and no warning about it, and then you are left alone.
On the same day, Monica called her eldest daughter, 16-year-old Lindita and told her to run away to escape Barnevernet.
LINDITA FRIDTJOFSEN: My mum said run. I was running, I was jumping on a trailer, driving to Poland. I was trying to call Zjanita. She asked for the phone when they were sitting in a locked room, and I just heard her screaming. It was really hard, because then someone was taking the phone from her hand, and the last thing I heard from her was that she was screaming. It was a very hard time with only crying every day.
MONICA FRIDTJOFSEN (Translation): You’ll be safe again, you won’t have to live in pain, it will never happen again.
MONICA FRIDTJOFSEN: Why Barnevernet did never go to my children and ask, "How are you? What do you want? Do you need anything?" Nothing. You are supposed to listen to children and the children say, "We want to go home. We want to go to mummy".
The kids were split up between three different foster homes. They'd never been separated from each other or their mum before and could only see her once every two weeks in supervised visits. This is iPhone footage of Monica and two of her girls on one of those visits.
MONICA FRIDTJOFSEN (Translation): Let me give her a goodbye hug!
So why were the children taken away? There was no record of neglect or violence. Monica says she was handed a list of vague accusation.
MONICA FRIDTJOFSEN: Children are out all day long, the children are behind in school, and they were saying that the doctor had said that I am mentally sick to even take care of myself, but they are normal, happy, good clever children.
With the support of her doctor and the school, Monica disproved every allegation made against her. And the case was dropped.
MONICA FRIDTJOFSEN: I think I'm lucky, because I get the children back after three and a half months. I listen to people waiting six months, one year, two years, and I'm thinking what if those children should have stay in this home for one year, two years, what children do I get back?
Barnevernet has a difficult line to walk. Remove kids too swiftly and without all the evidence, they are then accused of stealing children. Wait too long and they are then accused of leaving kids in harm's way. But some say there's a bigger issue at the heart of this debate, that without change it could quickly become a dark period in Norway's history, much like the Stolen Generation in Australia.
REPORTER: Just a couple of days ago they were protests from parents staying stop Barnevernet, they have stolen my children. What do you respond to those allegations?
ANDERS HENRIKSEN: It's not easy to lose the custody and the daily care of your own child, so to you have to look at this in that context. I can't comment on individual cases beyond that. This case is not about the parents and what kind of noise the parents make and how loud they complain. The focus is always on the child and the best interests of the child.
REPORTER: Can you respond to allegations that Norway's Child Protection Services removes children for flimsy reasons?
ANDERS HENRIKSEN: What I can say about this is that we have a good court system in Norway, which is based on principles of a fair trial. We talk to many kids who had a history in the services and their main feedback to us is why didn't you intervene earlier on? So that's the other side of this story.
As I prepare to head home, I discover that the day after my interview with Natasha and Erik they went into hiding. They have now fled the country with their twins and are all over the news in Norway.
NEWS REPORT (Translation): Over the past few weeks the local police have conducted a comprehensive investigation. They have been looking for nine-month-old twins and their parents.
They suspected Barnevernet was building a case against their parenting skills. They were afraid of losing their twins for a second time so they are claiming asylum in Poland. They sent me this footage and told me the twins are happy and doing well. Poland is protecting them, but they are also wanted by Norwegian police for kidnapping their own children.
The story of Erik and Natasha is unusual, not all cases are this dramatic. But Barnevernet has announced a review of 200 cases to see what they can learn and improve on. Those who have been involved in these cases first-hand are worried that Norway will one day look back with shame.
ASTRID GJOYSTDAL (Translation): But if we continue on the path we are on with more and more children removed from their homes and often on very minimal grounds, then I think in 50 years we'll look back at this as a black chapter in the history of Norway’s child protection.
Guro Sollie Hansebakken
Christian Stranger Johannessen
Guro Sollie Hansebakken
26th July 2016