How Norwegian experts came to reject biological kinship as relevant in child welfare policy by Professor Marianne Skanland

4 October 2017

Marianne Haslev Skånland has worked as a professor of linguistics at the University of Bergen, and is now retired. She has worked on analysis and criticism of science, both generally and in areas of linguistics, psychology and child protection, and was a member of the scientific advisory board of Stiftelsen för rättspsykologi (The Foundation for Forensic Psychology) in Stockholm. She is engaged in social questions concerning human rights and health, and especially interested in the question of the scientific basis of the views of social services and the justice system concerning psychology and social life. She has lectured for many years on the position and influence of behaviorism and other schools of thought in linguistics and anthropology. Much of her work can be found on her multilingual website   

In this essay Professor Marianne Skanland writes about how experts in Norway came to ask for the exclusion of considerations of biological kinship – «the biological principle» – in formulating child welfare policy there. Indian readers will be intrigued to see just how far things can go once you set on the path of child rights as envisioned in the developed West today. 

How Norwegian experts came to reject biological kinship as relevant in child welfare policy

The current ideology in the child protection sector in the Western countries, and in much social science generally, has a lot to do with why the child protection services in these countries function relatively poorly. The current situation in Norway is an example. The consequences are not acknowledged, nor are our authorities concerned with the underlying reasons why.

A lack of informed understanding of biological relationship

A central reason lies in the contested importance of biology. The benefit for children of being brought up by their own close biological kin has been touched on or discussed, off and on, in “child politics” for years, but mainly emotionally, without reasoned back-up, and without taking notice of research showing some hard facts. For example, in legislation and in documents preparing for legislation in Norway, one can find formulations like “It is of special value for children to grow up with their own parents.” But I do not believe a single parliamentary representative has defended this by explaining why. Neither have they shown any noticeable interest in finding out. They are like everybody else, omitting to search for the roots of their beliefs and opinions, letting impulses or fashionable trends and acknowledged experts decide instead.

The result is that new trends have found their way into our society, mounting up to eventually take away altogether any strong position for the biological family, in the running of social life and in people’s minds. And from trends and beliefs to new legislation. Nothing about growing up with one’s own parents is going to be considered any more as of special value to a child if the state can “offer” better circumstances by “placing” it with other “care-givers”. The trauma and unhappiness which separation causes in most children taken from their parents are light-heartedly taken to be only superficial and of short duration.

The much-favoured “attachment theory” invoked by the child protective services (CPS) stems originally from Freudian psycho-analysis (in itself completely unscientific) and is at the same time heavily behavioristic (cf below). Our various governments here in Norway have always trusted the psycho-socio-babblers and thought of everybody voicing a “wait-a-minute” as ignorant, archaic hindrances. Around 2010 they appointed a committee, rather clearly intentionally with some sort of aim of “showing up the biology-idiots” in practice: the so-called Raundalen Committee, which was to examine “attachment” more closely. Magne Raundalen himself is a child psychologist, politically active for the Socialist Left Party (SV), seemingly uninterested in criticism from victims of the CPS, highly decorated e.g. for his work with children in war-afflicted countries (he has declared the work to consist of making these children “open up” and receive psychotherapy). There were also other people on the Committee who had shown previous commitment to the ideology practiced by the CPS and their helpers. The Committee’s conclusion came in 2012: NOU 2012:5   Bedre beskyttelse av barns utvikling – Ekspertutvalgets utredning om det biologiske prinsipp i barnevernet (Better protection of children’s development – The expert committee’s report concerning the biological principle in Barnevernet [child protection]).

Raundalen himself was on television and radio saying with emphasis that the Committee had found absolutely no research pointing to biological parents being of special importance for children as care-givers. The Committee’s conclusion was a strong recommendation to exclude “the biological principle” and replace it by a “development-enhancing principle” for selecting “on a scientific principle” where children were going to grow up.

Our politicians are used, I am sure, to limit their reading mostly to official documents, so they have perhaps had little possibility of protesting such a conclusion or examining the research which the Committee had made use of and the research they had overlooked. Of the latter type there is plenty, giving a scientifically documentable reason why it is of special value for children to grow up with their own close relatives.

Anti-biology: environmentalism (behaviorism)

– the historical background

A reason why the social sciences, including psychology, fail to think in such terms and fail to find relevant research about family attachment, lies in a school of thinking called behaviorism. It affects one’s understanding both of research and of that which is being investigated. It may almost equally well be called environmentalism. This school of thought claims that human beings are born “clean slate”, with no predilections, nothing in the brain, so to speak, and that all that is important about our behaviour and our reactions, our thoughts and feelings is developed as learning, based on experience, copying, reinforcement, conditioning and the like. On the question of whether “nature” (biology, instincts, inborn tendencies etc) or “nurture” (experience and learning gathered from our environment) is the more important, behaviorists are arch-nurturists.

Joel Paris (2000): Myths of Childhood (Philadelphia: Brunner/Mazel) gives a good, brief overview of the scientific history of much that concerns us in connection with children growing up. He is explicit about some fashionable nonsense (p 55):

    “The primacy of childhood has permeated contemporary thought in the social sciences, the humanities, the arts, and the media. To document these trends in any detail would require another, and different, book. Therefore, I will only offer a brief sketch, illustrating my thesis with examples, while referring the interested reader to scholarly sources.

    Let us begin with the social sciences. These disciplines have consistently taken the side of nurture as the determining force for human nature (Degler, 1991; Paris, 1999). Until recently, radical environmentalism dominated psychology, with models emphasizing the central roles of early experience and behavioral conditioning. In particular, developmental psychology has been permeated by the assumption of a blank slate, with parental behavior determining almost everything in a child’s experience (Harris, 1998).

    Cultural anthropology has been equally environmentalist in its assumptions. Both psychologists and anthropologists have generally been resistant to the possibility that individual differences are rooted in temperament. Strong links between psychology and anthropology developed on the principle that personality is determined by culture, most particularly by parental practices shaping the development of young children.” (Review)

Paris touches on the example of the social anthropologist Margaret Mead, who claimed to have found in various societies in the Pacific area that even such a phenomenon as the frequently encountered storms and upsets that we are used to from young people in puberty were purely a product of a particular cultural way of bringing up the young, and that adolescence was especially peaceful and harmonic in Samoa.

The anthropologist Derek Freeman, who has done several years of research in Samoa and has also made himself properly acquainted with Samoan language, society and life as well as with Samoan history, has demolished every one of these contentions. His great book: Derek Freeman (1983): Margaret Mead and Samoa. The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropogical Myth (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press) has a comprehensive section on the historical development: “The Emergence of Cultural Determinism”. In addition to giving an enlightening analysis of basic beliefs and their development, it makes clear what the section’s title says: The behaviorists were/are determinists.

Freeman also discusses the prestigious school of thought which behaviorism tried to replace in science: biological determinism. If we read the story of the development of Nazi racial ideas, we find that they stem from completely accepted ideas of German biology in the later 1800s, and German biology was world-leading! An eye-opener of a documentation is: Daniel Gasman (2004, new edition with material added): The Scientific Origins of National Socialism (New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers).

The failure of determinism as a predictor or guide in daily life

To my mind, an important flaw in the reasoning both of the behaviorists and the biology-adherents who preceded them was that they were all determinists, and determinists of a simplistic kind. Now, ultimate reality may possibly be deterministic, mechanical, but if it is, the factors which regulate every happening, large and small, including details of what each of us thinks and does and decides and will do in the future, must be extremely complex. No education or training for foreseeing or judging people in any detail exists nor can it be achieved. Both types of scientists made an unwarranted jump to preaching that life in all its complexities is deterministic on the basis of a very few, very simple factors – which they presumed to know all about. And environmentalist behaviorism lives on, and even more dangerously: so do the simplistic determinism that underlies it and the enmity towards any kind of biological explanation. Biology is not so easily “observable environment”, so biological explanations are thought to be mysterious, unscientific.

The science of biology, on the other hand, has changed altogether from what was thought to be scientific fact a hundred years back. But some of the present hostility to biological arguments seems based on a suspicion that it is still like the biological determinism of 100–150 years ago, with its ideas of race, supposed racial characteristics, mystical ties to the land, and murky political tie-ups.

The state of our present knowledge?

So what, then, are the facts about the “belonging together” of children and their biological parents, and how do we know?

The fact is that close biological relationship develops special feelings of togetherness, of wanting to be close to each other. The reason is completely rational and easy to understand: The same feelings make parents want to give their own children much better care and protection than they would feel towards unrelated children, and make children seek to be with their parents for safety and happiness. It is so not only for human beings, but also for all animals whose young are dependent on care in order to survive and grow up. If there were ever family lines that had not developed such instincts or tendencies to take extra good care of their own offspring, such family lines would have died out, while those who were better equipped to do their utmost for their children, would have survived, to pass on their own genetically based tendencies.

The results are perhaps seen most clearly from statistics of abuse and statistics of illness.

World-leading evolutionary psychologists Martin Daly and Margo Wilson have carried out a series of investigations of abuse and killing in families where there is a step-parent, i.e. a non-biological care-giver. They have compared it with abuse-rates in biological families, carefully controlling for a number of possible confounds such as socio-economic position, age, previous history of violence of the step-parent, previous failed marriages, two-parent versus one-parent family, varying severity of abuse, etc. The results are that child abuse, particularly of a serious kind, is shown to be many times as frequent in step-families as in biological families. I have been told by social scientists that, generally, a significant difference in the magnitude of, say, 10-15 per cent between two groups is considered impressive in their sciences. In Daly & Wilson’s abuse studies, the differences are not only 10 per cent, not even 100 per cent; child abuse is found up to 100 times as often in step-families as in homes with two biological parents.

I have summed up some of this research, with references at the end of the article: “Child abuse which the child protection authorities do not want to know about – 2: Violence against step-children compared to genetic children – Daly & Wilson’s research”

Concerning illness, an impressive research project from a large research group found that separation of children, even up to the age of 17, from parents affected both their mental and their physical health negatively, and more negatively when the cause was not the death of the parent(s) than when it was! So it is the loss of a parent which is somehow felt to be unnecessary or meaningless which affects a child’s health the worst. It was e.g. found that breast cancer was more frequent in women who had early lost a parent. (Since I am completely unqualified in medicine, I can only make a guess: it sounds like a good explanation that perhaps the loss of a parent affects the immune system negatively.)

There are several publications by members of this research group, some can be found on the internet; see any of these names for articles: O. Agid, B. Shapira, J. Zislin, M. Ritsner, B. Hanin, H. Murad, T. Troudart, M. Bloch, U. Heresco-Levy and B. Lerer, Department of Psychiatry, Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center, Jerusalem: “Environment and vulnerability to major psychiatric illness: a case control study of early parental loss in major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia”, Molecular Psychiatry 1999 Mar; 4 (2): 163-72; Kendler et al.: “Childhood parental loss and risk for first-onset of major depression and alcohol dependence; the time decay of risk and sex differences”, Psychological Medicine 2002, 32: 1187.94.

I have outlined some of these facts and research concerning it, also with a reference list, in “Is biological kinship irrelevant for the life of human beings?”

There is of course evidence of the strength of family ties from a large number of individual cases of children fleeing from foster homes and institutions, trying to find their way home to their parents. On average, there seem to be a few children in Norway escaping like that every day. They are hindered by the CPS from reuniting with the parents. If captured, they not infrequently flee again. The CPS seem not nearly so concerned to prevent them from living on the street among drug addicts as with keeping them away from their parents.

Altogether we can see a difference, more or less strongly marked, between foster children and children growing up with their biological parent or parents, in the foster children’s disfavour; foster children tend to have an elevated risk of:

(a) a lack of experienced happiness and meaning in the period of growing up, because the child is not allowed to live together with those for whom it has a nature-given, mutual love and a feeling of belonging together,  (b) missing family solidarity and kin solidarity in adult age,  (c) divorce and other falling apart of their own family established as adults,  (d) actions from the CPS who take away their own children,  (e) suffering maltreatment and abuse in foster home / institution,  (f) poor education,  (g) unemployment,  (h) homelessness,  (i) early disability pensioning,  (j) physical and psychiatric illness,  (k) early death, suicide being one of the causes,  (l) alcohol and substance abuse,  (m) a criminal career and prison sentences, (n) a general experience of maladjustment and an inimical attitude towards society.

The future?

Fairly recently, a few Norwegian politicians are again beginning to say that parents are important and that the «development-enhancing principle» must be got rid of. If they are to accomplish this, I believe they need better arguments than they have been used to mobilise, against the child protection industry and the official establishments and personnel that support it in its present form. The question is where to find sufficient support for a better ideology and policy.

It is really ironic, and a tragedy, that there seems to be in Norway, this country of affluence, no strong milieu in academic, non-speculative psychology and biology sufficiently interested in these issues to engage in pertinent research or teaching which could help children and parents manhandled by the CPS to freedom and a better future.