Understanding and Responding to Child Confiscation by Social Service Agencies

Pravasi Today

9 May 2012

Understanding and Responding to Child Confiscation by Social Service Agencies

Suranya Aiyar

Part 1: Practices

One of the many disturbing discoveries from the story of the Bhattacharya children (Aishwarya and Abhigyan) who were taken into foster care in Norway is that this was no anomaly. Social services agencies functioning on the same principles as the Norwegian Child Welfare Service (CWS) exist in many parts of Europe, notably Sweden, the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Germany, and also in the United States. So Indians living abroad may be certain that the Bhattacharya case is not the last of its kind.

The Scandinavian version of these social services seems particularly aggressive. They have targeted foreigner families, such as the Bhattacharyas. They have confiscated much larger number of children as a proportion to their populations than other countries in Europe. However, the basic model of an autonomous agency of social service bureaucrats with the power to permanently remove children from their families exists in many other developed countries in the West.

The power of these agencies to remove children from families is not limited to extreme situations. Deficient parental care or potential emotional harm to the child from the personality of a parent meets the threshold for exercise of this power. It is reported in the United Kingdom that while statistics show the number of applications from care workers for children to be removed from their families has sharply risen in the last few years, the number of times sexual or physical abuse has been cited as a reason has declined and the number of times other reasons such as “emotional abuse” or the “risk of emotional harm” have been cited has increased.

The factors forming the basis for care workers’ negative assessments of parental care or the well-being of the child are not readily available. In surprising contrast to the rules for accountability in the developed West for other types of public bodies, the decisions of care workers are screened from public scrutiny by strict confidentiality laws.

Much of the available information on the basis on which care workers adjudge deficient or abusive parenting or harm to children is from affected families, journalists, activists and lawyers whose accounts have not been independently verified by this writer. But if these accounts are true, then there is cause for grave concern. It appears that it is common for negative assessments to be made for reasons such as too few or too many toys in the home; toys not being appropriate to a child’s age; the ill-health of a parent, the home being too messy or too tidy; and borderline personality disorder in a parent.

Activists inform us that a child sleeping in the same bed as a parent is often used as a basis for a finding of sexual abuse. One activist claims knowledge of cases where the speed at which a child eats food in front of the care worker is taken to indicate that it is a victim of incest.

Currently, “attachment disorders”, either too little or too much emotional attachment of the child to the parent (usually the mother), are a popular basis for care workers to assess abuse or neglect. Care workers diagnose attachment disorder even in very small babies, such as the four-month old Aishwarya Bhattacharya. She was stated to have emotional detachment from the mother based on the claim that she would look away, rather than at, her mother. Activists have informed us that care workers in other cases have found excessive attachment to the mother based on the claim that the baby was looking more at the mother than elsewhere.

Attachment disorder is also diagnosed by care workers in children whose behaviour could equally be explained by the presence of disorders that are not necessarily caused by parental mistreatment. The diagnosis by the Norwegian CWS of attachment disorder in the elder Bhattacharya boy (Abhigyan) is based on alleged symptoms that could be caused by autism, such as head banging and poor language skills. Lawyers familiar with CWS cases report that a large number of children showing developmental disorders are taken away from their parents as the CWS takes the existence of such disorders as evidence of parental abuse or neglect.

It is common for care workers to declare troubles in the parent’s relationship as making the home unfit for children and to demand that parents separate on pain of permanently removing the children.

Information disclosed by the CWS in the Bhattacharya case also provides some examples of the basis for negative findings about parenting: for instance, the elder child was stated to have emotional disconnect from the mother based on the fact that he wriggled out of her arms when she held him in front of the care workers. Allegations against the mother’s mental competence were made on the basis that she appeared confused and flustered around the care workers and that she shouted when the police confiscated her children.

In some jurisdictions, the care worker does not need a court order to take the child away. In such cases, the care worker is not even required to give prior notice to the families before confiscating their children, even where there is no emergency. For instance, in the Bhattacharya case, the Norwegian care workers took the four-month old from the mother on the pretext of taking the baby out for a walk, and the elder boy was picked up from kindergarten.

Even when these cases go to court, none of the evidence and reports based on which care workers claim parental neglect, abuse and the like are subjected to the level of scrutiny of a criminal trial. Evidence of the care workers is effectively treated as expert, even though they act to all intents and purposes as adversaries of the parents. In some cases, parents have claimed that they are not even given copies of the evidence and psychologists reports submitted by the social services against them.

How things came to such a pass is anyone’s guess. Part of the explanation lies in bureaucratic overreach and overzealousness. Part may lie in the general expectation that it is the responsibility of social services to prevent incidents of abuse within the family. In many of the countries that have this sort of social service agency, there is a history of cases of child abuse or battery hitting the news followed by public outrage against the social services for failing to prevent such cases. Social service agencies appear to have responded by lowering the threshold of harm or risk to the child that justifies taking them into care. Part of the explanation may also lie in corruption – in some countries foster carers and psychologists are well-paid for their participation in the care system and the opportunities for abuse of the system are clearly present.

Part 2: Ideology and Culture Bias

The questionable basis on which parental abuse or neglect is found to exist by social service agencies is not the worst thing about them. The more dangerous problem is the understanding of the child and the family on which these agencies operate. At the core of this institutionalised response to troubled families in the form of removing the child is the false dichotomy between the welfare of the child on the one hand and its growing up with its parents on the other. It is the equivalent of bombing a city to get rid of a virus.

The approach to child welfare as a question of care divorced from family (even when preferring the “healthy” family as the best place for the child) is apparent in the statements of CWS officials to the Indian press in justification of the permanent foster care order against the Bhattacharya children. One official stated to The Hindu (a well-known Indian English daily) that it must be understood that Sagarika Bhattacharya may be a loving mother without being a good carer. The Norwegian ombudsmen for child-related matters explained on television that the remit of the child welfare officials was to consider the interest of the child and that the interest of the adults would not be allowed to stand in the way of that of the child. Presumably, the reference to “adults” was to the parents or other adult family members willing to take over care of the child.

It is on these first principles that matters have gone so badly off track. The raising of the child by parents or extended family is wrongly framed as a matter that pertains to the interest of the adult family member as opposed to the interest of the child. It is emphatically in the interest of the child, no less than that of its parents, for the child to grow up in its family where the family are willing, and in the case of scores of families torn apart by these agencies, begging to be allowed to do so.

While parents may be imperfect, leading to home conditions that are far from ideal, it is unjust and cruel for the child in such a situation to be consigned to a joyless existence in a care institution or spend its childhood circulating through different foster homes or to be put up for adoption when its parents are willing to care for the child. To say that a child suffers when the mother is depressed or unaffectionate is one thing, but to say that children should be separated for good from such mothers is quite another. If being with family is understood, as it should be, as part of a child’s welfare, then intervention will never be in the form of separation but in the form of helping parents and other family care givers to surmount their own difficulties to become better care givers. It may well be that dysfunctional parents often do not improve. But this has wrongly been taken as a justification to prefer separation over assistance for troubled families. The Hindu has reported that the Norwegian CWS takes the view that it is better to remove children from parents seen to be dysfunctional as it is cumbersome, expensive and may in the end be futile, to wait for such parents to improve. This kind of thinking has to be comprehensively rejected. No doubt a good family environment is best for children, but they certainly do not deserve to be orphaned by the State for the sins of their parents.

To the uninitiated, stories of care workers taking children away from parents conjure up images of children being saved from murderous or incestuous parents. But the reality in a vast number of cases is quite different. Readers may recall the description of both Bhattacharya parents of how Abhigyan used to clutch at his father’s shirt when being taken away by care workers to the foster home after the few hours’ meetings that the parents were allowed with the children when they were first taken away. Christopher Booker, a veteran British journalist who has worked extensively on these issues (and who has historical and present family connections to India) describes this tragedy movingly in a recent publication: “the only contact the accused parents and their unhappy children are allowed with each other is in brief, rigorously supervised ‘contact sessions’ staged in grim council ‘contact centres’. Even these are likely to be brusquely terminated if any sign of affection is shown, or if a bewildered child dares to ask its parents for an explanation of why all this is happening.”

Norwegian activists who have been campaigning against the CWS for years say that the natural upset of children at these contact session has often been used by the CWS to cancel parental visits altogether. Affected parents have reported that the child’s confusion at the parents no longer being with it is manipulated by care workers and foster carers to alienate the children from their families.

For children unfortunate enough to be subjected to sexual abuse or battery from their parents, the criminal justice system must step in to punish or remove the responsible parent. In such cases, provision needs to be made for the rehabilitation of other family members, including the children. But the current system of making child welfare officers, who are not subject to the checks of the criminal justice system, responsible for identifying and then redressing abuse by removing children from their families is entirely wrong. The present state of affairs that has care workers ordering parents with problems to separate in order for the children to stay with one or other of them is unworkable and absurd. Engineering such forced separations is immoral and dangerous for all the reasons that forced marriages are immoral and dangerous.

Cultural bias is prevalent in both the ideology and the practices of these child welfare regimes. The attenuation of family ties, the suspicion of moral claims based on biology or race (such as the right to one’s natural family or to the culture of one’s birth), popular pop-Freudian notions of the family as a dark and dangerous place; all this forms the fertile matter in which the ideology of the child welfare agencies of isolating child welfare from family has germinated and grown. Whether we agree or disagree with the importance of family, what has to be made clear in the debate is that each position is located in profoundly cultural place.

Cultural bias also informs many of the assessments made by care workers when investigating families. In Norway, it is reported that immigrant communities are disproportionately targeted by the CWS. In the Bhattacharya case, the fact that the mother fed the younger baby whenever she cried and had not put her on a routine (which is common in South Asian communities) was held against her. The scheduled baby that eats and sleeps to fixed timings is something of a sacred cow in the West. The care worker’s complaints about the father not giving priority to the family and spending too much time at work could perhaps be made of any Asian family. The strict view on slapping is heavy with cultural baggage. So is the sniffiness at “force feeding” and sleeping in the same bed.

It is not that these practices are not found in non-Asian households. They are, but it is not the norm and state sponsored websites on baby care, popular baby care books and literature accompanying baby equipment are filled with warnings about suffocation dangers from “co-sleeping”, injunctions against force feeding and methods for putting babies on a fixed schedule of eating and sleeping. It is interesting that while most Westerners would be quite firmly against the smacking of children by parents, most would not see as cruel or neglectful practices such as sleep training, where infants as young as a few weeks old are left to “cry it out” in their cots to learn to go to sleep independently.

It should be mentioned here that there is a following in the West of baby rearing practices based on the so-called “attachment” principle. Attachment rearing rejects routines, sleep-training and schedule-forming practices. Instead it directs parents to “wear” their babies, to feed them “on demand”, to rock them to sleep and so on. Superficially this looks like the opposite of the independent-baby practices preferred by care workers. But even here, we have keep our eyes wide open to the full picture. Attachment rearing texts also tend to have the same “how-to” approach as the independent baby texts. All the wearing, rocking and feeding are presented as the answers to “how to” cure colicky crying, get the baby to eat well or sleep comfortably. In this aspect they are identical to independent baby practices which are also “how to” – how to get the baby to stop crying and start “behaving”. On the other hand, the common Indian view (and I dare say other Asians would have the same) is that it is in the nature of babies to cry, often inexplicably; to eat, wake and sleep at odd times, for toddlers to be very naughty indeed and for a whole lot of loving and scolding to be the basic lesson of parenting. This is not to say that many Westerners do not have the same approach. But if we are to engage governments and the Western public on the ideology and culture bias of social services agencies, then we have to identify and concentrate the cultural polarities in different approaches to baby and child care.

Part 3: Next Steps

The first step for Indians living abroad is to spread awareness of the practices and thinking of child welfare agencies. It would be useful to make contact with other immigrant communities and learn from their experiences with these agencies. Building of awareness is required not just among non-resident Indians (NRIs), but also in India, so that in future there is a deeper understanding of the context in which such cases of child confiscation occur. NRI communities should also gather names of lawyers, child specialists, journalists and activists who can be of assistance to persons targeted by child welfare agencies.

The next step abroad is to oppose the ideology of these child welfare agencies and to expose the biases and inequities in their functioning. NRI communities should also explore what recourse persons who are wrongfully targeted by child welfare services in Europe and the United States may have before international human rights tribunals.

Back in India, the Indian Government should be petitioned to institute formal response mechanisms in Indian embassies and consulates, as well as in the Government at home, to assist Indian families that are caught up in the child welfare system. There also has to be further work a comprehensive legal basis and action plan for intervention by the Indian Government in future such cases.

Having been brought in quite late in the day in the Bhattacharya case, several months after the permanent foster care order was passed, there was perhaps little option but to accept the Norwegian terms that custody of the children be given to their uncle for their return to India.

But this must not be treated as a model response for future cases. The solution forced on everyone by the Norwegian authorities in the Bhattacharya case had the effect of ousting the parental rights of Indian citizens and of ratifying the CWS’s assessment of both the parents and the children. In cases where all family members are Indian citizens, the Indian Government should be persuaded to draw up a legal basis for intervention that will protect the family from separation and permit the parents, as Indian citizens, to have their rights adjudicated in accordance with Indian law (although women should be warned that the father’s rights are much stronger than those of the mother in Indian family law). For this to be practicable and to limit complications under international law, it is key for intervention of the Indian Government to be sought and made as early as possible in such cases.

Intervention by the Indian Government in cases where all family members are not Indian is somewhat complicated. But even so, the Indian Government should be persuaded to take a stand against the ideology and practices of child welfare services of the Norwegian variety as a humanitarian issue. It would be useful for NRI communities to sound out other immigrant communities in this regard. There is likely to be much interest. Certainly, as against the Norwegian CWS, there appears to be considerable opposition in Poland and Russia.

We must take head on the wider issues raised by the Bhattacharya case about the thinking and practices of child welfare agencies in the developed West. Behind a veil of secrecy and dressed up in the finery of a welfare institution, these agencies are pursuing a course of utmost cruelty and inhumanity. We must speak out against them the strongest terms.

Suranya Aiyar is a lawyer who participated in the agitation for the release of the Bhattacharya children from foster care in Norway. She has two children close in age to the Bhattacharya children and has been writing on this case and critiquing the approach of western social service agencies to the child and the family

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