How a CPS-investigation can wreck havoc to a family

This is a part of a serie of posts I'm writing on "Barnevernet", the Norwegian Child Protection Service

Our national broadcasting service (NRK) have stories covering Barnevernet every now and then, with a bit different angles, but more often than not they're covering horror-stories. Families being split apart and totally destroyed for no apparent reason. Children that have abusive parents, but where Barnevernet has failed to react on it. Children that Barnevernet has taken out from their families, only to place them at abusive foster parents. Children with special needs that are taken out from their family, put into the care of some foster parents, but where the foster parents get no assistance or guidance at all on how to handle those children.

The last article (Norwegian) is about a family where Barnevernet eventually closed the case - but the investigation was affecting the family (and particularly one of the children) negatively. Their case started with a "message of concern" stating that two years ago, a 7 years old boy had demanded a 7 years old girl to undress, had showed her his "equipment" and kissed her - which, in their eyes, was a sexual assault. Well, perhaps it was traumatic for the girl, but to claim that a seven year old boy would be a "sexual offender" is a very long strech in my opinion. Now, if it had been discovered at once, then probably it would be a point to teach the boy something about wrong and right - but two years later ... no way. Barnevernet came to the school, cornered that nine year old boy, asked him a lot of questions, he denied for any wrongdoings, but still they concluded with "agressive sexual behaviour" in their notes. In that meeting, he admitted that the father had been slapping him on the hand, and that caused the ball to really start rolling.

a slapping hand
Is it the hand of a parent slapping a child, the hand of Barnevernet slapping a family, or something entirely different?

Similarities to our case

  • The children very soon learned to be afraid of Barnevernet. This easily gets into a negative feedback cycle, when the children are afraid of Barnevernet, they can easily act in such a way that Barnevernet believes they have become mentally harmed from living with their parents.

  • The father had been slapping the hand of one of the children. I admit it - I've done the same - not meant as a punishment, but to stop a bad situation. In particular, it was a period when one of our children could get really angry and start beating the younger sibling, then I would do what I could to split them up - quickly, roughly, without time to think straight, and without hesitation. From the article it says that something similar may have happened in this case. Slapping a child on the palm is actually considered to be a criminal offence in Norway. While corporal punishment is acceptable in some parts of the world, most Norwegians would agree that violence against children is a valid reason for splitting up a family.

  • An investigation is supposed to be concluded within three months. It didn't happen, neither in this case nor in ours.

  • The staff at Barnevernet had a serious lack of competence when it comes to communication with children.

  • The family has written complaints, the relevant authorities (former "Fylkesmannen", now renamed to "Statsforvalteren") have concluded that Barnevernet broke the law, but it has no other consequences than that Statsforvalteren "hopes that Barnevernet will improve their routines". (We also filed a complaint to the police, it was very speedily closed - perhaps we should complain and demand it to be reopened now that we have a paper stating that Barnevernet did indeed break the law in our case)

  • The employees of Barnevernet making a conclusion first, and then trying to back up the conclusion in the investigation - rather than the other way around

  • The family have decided to move due to the rough handling from Barnevernet. Well, our story is a bit different, but part of the family have moved (in our case it was supposed to be for one year only, but the children is doing so well at their current school that we don't dare taking them out from there).

  • There is a concern of the paper trail. In their case one of the children has been stamped as a sexual offender, with no evidence at all, and those papers will exist forever. At least we don't have that, but Barnevernet has quite a stack of paper on both us and the children, sensitive information, not all of it true, and Barnevernet is repeatedly telling untrue things about us and being believed on it.

  • There seems to be an assumption that Barnevernet can perform an investigation without the investigation causing any harm to the children, the parents or the family as such. It's wrong - and in some cases even totally wrong. The family described has had severe problems due to the investigation. We haven't been that badly affected, but I can relate to some of the symptoms:

    • Both the parents and children having problems with concentration. Of course, negative thoughts and worries popping up every now and then does something with the ability to perform well, both at work and at school.

    • Parents have had problems going to work. Not sure if the problem they've had is similar to mine, but I'vee had my workdays cut off early due to lots of meetings with Barnevernet. My wife is unemployed, and has at some points been working almost full time interfacing with Barnevernet and various other instances, writing complaints and reading documents in the case.

    • All children having problems going to school. Well, we've had our share of problems with that, but I think it's more due to other reasons than Barnevernet.

    • Problems sleeping. Sometimes it can be really hard to sleep when bad thoughts and worries are churning around in the head.

    • The long period of the investigation and waiting for "the next move" was considered as stressful. Indeed, I've said that quite some times, there are some reasons why the law states that the investigation should be concluded within three months, and one of them is that it's painful and stressful and not goot at all for a family as such to be under an investigation. Unfortunately, this law is frequently broken - in our case they spent nine months, and this family has also been suffering for far more than those three months..

    • Those parents had to go to therapy sessions to cope with the mental damage - well, we haven't seen any need for that. I can speak only for myself, perhaps the trauma sits harder with my wife. When sharing the article with her, she responded ... "I get very stressed every time I read something like this".

    • The child accused of being a "sex-offender" may be suffering a post-traumatic stress disorder. That's also a difference, our children are developing very well now at a new school and far away from Barnevernet.

    • Meeting notes written by Barnevernet doesn't only include what's said on the meetings - but it also subjectively describes the behaviour of the other party and speculating on their feelings. In the reported case it was the boy, who denied everything, but still was described as a sex offender in the meeting notes. There is particularly one meeting note from my meeting with Barnevernet where there are more lines describing weather I look stressed or relaxed, angry or friendly, etc, what feelings I may have in the meeting, and weather it's likely that I understood their message or not ... than what I actually said in the meeting.

Not sure about their case, but the last points - most of them - are typically things that can cause negative feedback loops, may be resulting in more "messages of concern", and may be used against the parents. In our case it was briefly mentioned in the hearing that the investigation from Barnevernet had impacted the family negatively, and one person in the hearing claimed it could be an indication that the parents were not capable of having responsibility of children.

A visit to a therapist
Those parents needed therapy after the investigation

Differences

  • Apparently they only had problems with Barnevernet. In our case, much of the problems had roots in the kinder garden and school, and rather than admitting any wrongdoings or problems at their side, they have been sending "messages of concern" to Barnevernet and trying to put the blame at the parents.

  • Their case was eventually closed. In our case, Barnevernet actually tried to take all our four children away from us.

  • As far as I know, the employees from Barnevernet have never been alone with our younger children - they have always insisted that a teacher, parent or other person that the child would trust would stay throughout the meeting. The exception that proves the point, my then nine year old was briefly alone with them, Barnevernet told him the meeting would be cancelled as no teacher could join, and according to the meeting notes he replied something like "well, what could you expect, busting in here all of a sudden with no prior appointment?". The story at NRK is particularly highlighting the problem that can rise from incompetent employees from Barnevernet "interrogating" a child without any other witnesses, recordings or evidence than the notes written by Barnevernet.

Summing it up

The mere fact that Barnevernet is investigating a family can have a deep negative impact on a family - both on the parents and the children. According to the law, such an investigation is supposed to be concluded within three months, but (perhaps often due to capacity problems at Barnevernet) this time frame is often exceeded, often without much visible happening in the case. The impact on the family may be considerably worse when the investigation isn't closed within due time.

As I may have said in my previous posts, people are encouraged to have a low threshold for sending "messages of concern" to Barnevernet, and Barnevernet is supposed to have a low threshold for starting an investigation based upon such messages. Those who invented this system have apparently been assuming that being investigated by Barnevernet is a harmless, neutral event - but that's not right. Such investigations can involve an enormous amount of stress - and then there is the stigma in addition.

Sources

A Norwegian article from our National Broadcaster and personal experiences.

Image credits

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