Human Rights Violations and the Creation of a Parent Advocacy Network

Organisasjon for Barnevernsforeldre (OBF), Norway

Between 2003 and 2016 the number of children in foster care in Norway gradually and steadily increased, from 5, 693 to 9,080. In 2005, the physical abuse and death of an 8-year-old boy named Christoffer at the hands of his stepfather shocked the country, and became a national symbol of a child welfare system not capable of protecting children. But as the number of children placed in foster care continued to grow, child protection also faced mounting criticism from families, advocates and in the media for providing minimal support to system-involved parents and for inadequately protecting the parent-child bonds of families with children placed in foster care.

Norway is typically known for its robust social services and high quality of life, not for human rights violations. But the changes in child protection policy led to protests within Norway and diplomatic conflicts with other countries, and ultimately to the beginning of reforms within Norway’s child welfare system.

At the end of 2011, in the midst of tensions, a group of parents along with professional supporters met in order to establish an interest organization for parents with children in foster care, called Parent Advocacy Network Norway, or Organisasjon for Barnevernsforeldre (OBF). The aim was to create both peer support for parents going through the child welfare system, as well as a body that could serve as a voice for parents when system changes were made. It was to be comparable to the foster parents association and the association for children who are or have been in care that already existed in Norway.  

In 2013, Norway’s Ministry of Children and Family Services began to finance some of the activities of OBF. Public pressure moved the ministry to begin other reforms as well, including efforts to hire more workers from minority backgrounds, improve relations between parents and foster parents and hire system-affected parents to provide peer support.

Then, starting in 2015, 36 families with child welfare involvement appealed their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. In seven of the nine cases already heard (as of May 2020), the court’s ruling criticized Norway’s child welfare system for failure to recognize the primary goal of family reunification. Among the specific concerns were that adoption was approved without serious help offered to the family of origin; that the court used outdated reports from specialists to support a removal; and that contact between parents and children were overly restrictive, thereby undermining reunification.

Both internal reforms and outside pressure have begun to have an impact. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of children in foster care has gradually but steadily declined, from a high of 9,080 in 2016 to 8,600 in 2019. Today OBF supports system-involved parents by providing individual and legal counseling and peer support to its 250 participants primarily via Facebook. OBF also works with politicians, public authorities and other organizations to improve child protection, address stigma, and strengthen the voice of parents in policy and practice. OBF representatives also serve on the National User Board for the Ministry of Children and Family Services.

Most recently, in March 2020, the Norwegian High Court heard three cases brought by child welfare-affected parents. In its statement, the High Court emphasized that the first aim of child welfare work is reunification, and stressed the importance of contact between children and parents in order to promote reunification unless the parents are clearly unfit. Tor Slettebo, a professor in the Faculty of Social Studies at the VID Specialized University in Norway and on the advisory board of OBF, said that reports from the frontlines already suggest that visiting time between children and parents is expanding.

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