66.6 hours in Norway

66.6 hours in NorwayPeter Costea is a civil rights attorney practicing in Houston, Texas. He also holds a PhD in diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston, Massachusetts.

I spent 66.6 hours or so in Norway in late February 2016. It was my first trip there. I landed in Oslo around noon on a Wednesday, and left a little after 6 a.m. the following Saturday from Bergen, a city on Norway’s West coast. It was a quick trip which, however, opened my eyes to

the New Norway, where family, marriage, parenthood, and the meaning of parenting have morphed into something the world has never seen before, including the shocking reality that children can be taken away from parents, or be deprived of parental rights, without court order.

A humanitarian cause

Throughout the years I had been used to hearing or reading frequently about Norway. Just about everything I heard or read came from the mainstream media. I don’t recall ever reading anything adverse about  the Land of the Vikings. As a practicing lawyer for many years in Houston, I have sued many Norwegian companies doing business in Texas on behalf of my clients. This acquainted me directly, but, I admit, to a limited degree, with Norway, its culture, people, and many of its international dealings. It was enough, however, to impress upon me the magnitude of  Norway’s economic presence in Texas. I had also come to know, through the litigation process, managers of large Norwegian companies doing business in Texas. Houston is home to the largest expatriate Norwegian community in the world. Around 10,000 Norwegians live and make a living in Houston and the surrounding counties, and some 200 Norwegian companies transact business there.

Frequently I also read statistical data on Norway. Undeniably, Norway is at the top of world charts in many important and relevant categories, such as health, economic prosperity, education, life expectancy, and the like. United Nations reports and world surveys bear this out. And then there is the world renown Norwegian sovereign fund which still stands at about 800 billion dollars, after peaking to over 900 billion dollars in 2008 before the start of the global economic crisis and the collapse of the oil prices in the last few years.

Yet, in the span of only 66.6 hours, many of my impressions about Norway changed. Or, maybe I should say, new impressions formed. Unfortunately, most of them were negative and were caused by the very reason that took me to Norway in the first place. Months before, I had taken up a pro bono humanitarian case involving Norway. It was a case which, after having investigated it for months, I will today call state-sponsored child kidnapping. In November

2015 Norway’s Barnevernet, the equivalent of the Child Protective Services (CPS) in the United States, seized, without court order, five (5) children from a Romanian-Norwegian family living in Naustdal. The matter fell, almost squarely, within my area of legal expertise, civil rights litigation. When I first heard the news I was scandalized. But indignation soon turned into outrage because, after investigating the case, I became convinced that the family’s religion had something to do with the seizure of the children.

I have heard, along the years, of prominent Western lawyers taking up humanitarian or pro bono causes abroad, but those cases typically involved incidents occurring in Third World countries. South Africa’s apartheid system readily comes to mind. Not only because it was fashionable for attorney to pick up humanitarian cases there, but also because I had lived the apartheid experience for myself. I spent one year there teaching international relations and diplomacy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1989. That was two (2) years or so prior to the collapse of the apartheid regime. I witnessed, and I still do vividly recall, our international relations department being frequently visited by foreign lawyers pleading various humanitarian causes and drawing international attention to South Africa’s political detainees.

Little did I know that, after twenty-five (25) years of legal practice, I would be involved in an international humanitarian case of my own, but, strangely enough, not one in the Third World, but one involving Norway, the country which, according to statistical data and mass media reports, can do no wrong, and where everything goes right. In other words, a land of perfection, an Eden in the North-Western corner of Europe. A Norway known around the world as the poster child and claim to fame of secularism. A country with a system that really cannot be improved upon. What I discovered, however, after spending 66.6 hours in Norway, after previously reading up and educating myself on Norwegian law related to family and child welfare, and after speaking with many people, including government officials, was a dark side to Norway. An unpleasant side that few Norwegians in Norway are willing to acknowledge, few people outside of Norway know, and one that the mass media does not promote, and, very likely, is not interested to promote.

First impressions

The first thing I observed about Norway was that it lagged behind the United States. It certainly was not what I had expected. Norway has no freeways, a mundane observation, no doubt, but for someone like myself living in the fourth largest metropolitan area of the United States, the absence of freeways, as well as the light traffic, seemed eerie. I then visited several families and was surprised to observe that they used stoves instead of central heating to heat up their homes. Wood was used for fuel. Even more surprising to me was the electrical installation in some of the homes I visited. It was old and akin to the electrical installations I knew in the early 1960s growing up in communist Romania. I even saw exposed wires and made it a point to be extra careful when flipping the switch to avoid injury.

I also noticed that the hours of government offices were significantly less than in the United States. They were opened from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and I wondered why. I subsequently realized it was due to the few customers that trickled in. Norway’s population stands at 5.2 million people, and government offices just don’t have as many customers as other countries. Banks also operated with reduced hours. Probably for the same reason. Particularly odd, however, was when a bank refused to exchange my dollars into Norwegian kroners because I held no bank account there. Fortunately, the person that drove me to the bank had an account and exchanged my money. Strange also was to see few people in the streets. Could this be because the country’s population is so sparse? Possibly. The shopping mall in Bergen seemed backward, not only in comparison with America’s malls, but also with some I’ve visited in Romania, the Cotroceni Mall in Bucharest, for instance, which is sparkling clean and modern. Outside, snow mixed with rain was coming down, and inside a store the ceiling was leaking. Here and there I saw buckets on the floor collecting the dripping water.

Conversations and fear of Barnevernet

Conversations with the people I met in Norway were an eye opener and disturbing. Regardless of how the conversations started, they inevitably continued and ended by people relating personal experiences and stories, or the experiences of close friends and families, with Norway’s Barnevernet, the dreaded Norwegian institution which claims to function for the welfare of children. I discovered, however, that the reality was just the opposite. The nicely stated objectives and lofty aims of the Barnevernet outlined in Norway’s laws translated, in real life, into misery for families and children alike.

I ran into several Romanian families on Norway’s West coast. Ultimately, the conversations led to Barnevernet. They told me school officials routinely ask children intrusive questions about their home life: are the children served sweets at home? Or sugary soft drinks? Do their parents fight? Do they hit the children? What types of discussions occur at home? How many brothers and sisters do you have? Teachers instruct children not to tell their parents about the questions they are asked at school. So much for parental rights.

Then there is the subject of sexuality education. Children are taught in schools that same-sex relations and same-sex marriage are appropriate and, starting at age twelve (12), they are shown pornography. At school. Children come home embarrassed, ashamed, and complain to their parents. They have difficulties coping with the sexual arousal the viewing of pornography causes them. When the children reach age fourteen (14) parents are required to allow them “free time” each day. During the “free time” parents are not allowed to ask intrusive questions of the children, such as what are you doing, where are you going, what are you watching? Parents are also not allowed to ask their children questions related to their sexual lives or activities. During the “free hours” parents cannot assign any chores to the children. The “free time” is designed, I was told, to allow the teenagers to “discover themselves” and their “identity.” A parent relayed to me his neighbor’s frustration that he could not even ask his daughter what she did in her bedroom alone with her boyfriend every Wednesday afternoon. He could not turn the boyfriend away when, like clockwork, he knocked on the door every Wednesday.

Children react differently to the teachers’ pressure. Many complain to their parents about the questions the teachers ask, while others simply refuse to engage. Some native Norwegians with whom I discussed the subject were radiant that their children reached the age where teachers could no longer manipulate them and the children either refused to answer the questions or provided the standard answer that everything at home was fine. These children are old enough to know that if they say bad things about their parents or living conditions they will be taken away by Barnevernet and may not see their siblings or parents until 18.

A parent complained about being scolded by school officials for not allowing his child to attend the Halloween events the school organized in November 2015. The children’s birthdays can also be a nightmare for parents. The children, not the parents, compile the list of guests to attend their birthday parties. The list is often compiled jointly with teachers, is then given to the parents, and the parents send out the invitations. The parents cannot object to the list or refuse to invite any of the persons on the list. The children also select the birthday cake. Parents cannot object, but school personnel can. Objections have been raised, for instance, where teachers believed the cake was likely to contain too much sugar. Some parents, I’ve been told, have also been chastised by school officials for not allowing their children to attend certain social events or parties. This aspect was particularly troublesome for religious parents who refuse to allow their children to attend events that are incompatible with their values or religious beliefs.

An incident was shared with me by a Romanian family in Bergen dating back to December 2015. The Romanian Christian community there organized a Christmas pageant, and, as is customary in just about every place around the world, children were dressed up to resemble angels, shepherds, and Mary and Joseph dressed in traditional garb. The event was held in a special location in a mall.  Locals passing by became very suspicious of the event and stopped to ask questions about why the children were dressed as they were. Were the children abused, some asked? Should the police be called?

The fear of Barnevernet, however, runs even deeper and impacts even the most unsuspecting of

situations. For instance, I’ve been told that if a child falls and incurs a bruise, taking her to a medical clinic is risky. The clinic will have to report the bruise to Barnevernet and the police. An investigation will be launched to determine if the bruise was caused by the parent or an adult abusing the child. And, if the child’s version of what caused the bruise differs from that of the parent or adult, the parent is in trouble. The presumption is that the parent bruised the child and the parent has to convince the authorities she did not. Severe penalties apply where the parents do not report the bruise or take the child to the clinic. In such instances the suspicion that the parent did violence to the child is even more pronounced. As one can see, it can certainly be said that, to some extent, parenting has been criminalized in Norway.

I heard a story that practically blew my mind. A mother took her daughter to a mall, the girl broke a glass, cut herself, and started bleeding. The mother took photos of the scene and solicited bystanders to write statements or volunteer as witnesses attesting to the fact that she did not cause her daughter’s injuries. Neither the mother nor anyone else intervened to remedy the incident. That was left to the authorities for when they arrived at the scene. Fear of Barnevernet runs deep particularly among the Norwegians who have children.

A country without religion or God

I also found a Norway where its people, by and large, are not religious. Some of the Norwegians with whom I attempted to tackle the subject showed no interest, or claimed to be agnostics or atheist. Yet, they almost unanimously indicated, some with nostalgia, that their parents or grandparents had been religious and went to church. When asked, jokingly, “what happened to you?” the answer would inevitably be conveyed, equally jovially, “I don’t know!” This, too, was a major difference between the metropolis in which I live, where about 80% of its citizens claim to be Christians, and Norway.

After my return from Norway, in early April I accessed a recent study which depicts Norway as a largely irreligious country, and possibly the most atheistic country in the world. According to a Norwegian survey of 4000 citizens, made in 2015 and released in March 2016, 39% of Norwegians do not believe in God, and only 37% say they do. The rest claim not to know. Norway appears to be the first country in Europe where the number of atheists exceeds the number of Christians. [Details: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/norwegians-believe-in-god-majority-do-not-for-first-time-ever-a6943706.html]

Prideful Norwegian officials

Government officials with whom I spoke about my case were kind, polite, fairly rational, and the conversations would soon take a pragmatic course. However, they seemed astonished that a foreign lawyer would claim that Norway violated the religious and parental rights of the family I represented. Nothing of the sort could happen in Norway, they all said. “You have to understand, this is the Norwegian way” I was repeatedly told. At times the discussions turned awkward when insisting that Norway’s Barnevernet is violating international norms related to child protection and parental rights. The officials dug in their heels insisting that Norway does not violate anyone’s rights and the rest of the world does not understand the Norwegian system. It was impressed upon me that Norway is a peaceful country which bestows Nobel prizes each year. I retorted by pointing out that Norwegian attorneys take up causes in the Third World when they implicate violations of human rights. My comparison, however, did not go well with my Norwegian counterparts.

Particularly awkward was my encounter with police officials at the Naustdal police station. The mother whose children Barnevernet had abducted was being interrogated by the police while I was there, on Thursday morning. This was not the first interrogation, however, but one of several that had already taken place. The interrogation had started at 9:00 a.m. and I arrived at the precinct at almost 1:00 p.m. The interrogation had not yet ended, but the mother and her attorney were on a break. I introduced myself and asked to be allowed to see the mother. This was possibly the most embarrassing encounter I had with Norwegian authorities. I felt, for a moment, like a human rights activist from a Western country in a Third World country requesting access to a political detainee who, in police custody, was being  interrogated right at that time. Norwegian police, I discovered, uses tricks to solicit facts from those whom they interrogate. The questions are leading and formulated as opinions not facts. They are rhetorical, where any answer could incriminate the person interrogated. Unlike in the United States, Norway’s citizens are presumed guilty and not the other way around. The citizen is expected to prove his innocence not the state the guilt of the accused.

Seizing children without court order

In Norway, Barnevernet can take children away from their parents against their will and without court order. The children need not necessarily be abused for this to happen. This would be unheard of in the United States. In Texas, as well as in probably all other states, for instance, while children can be removed from their parents without parental consent, that can only be done pursuant to court order. Social workers are required to investigate the allegations, gather the facts, and give affidavits, under penalty of perjury, averring that the facts they uncovered are true. The sworn affidavits are tendered to a judge. The judge evaluates the facts against legal and factual standards clearly outlined in the law and interpreted by courts of appeals. If the judge determines that the children had been abused, she can order the children removed from their parents, without their consent, but only for ten (10) days. Within ten (10) days the court is required by law to hold a hearing with the parents and CPS, take testimony and evidence, and determine, immediately, the fate of the children. Not so in Norway. There, Barnevernet is an arm of the state, of the executive branch. The judiciary has no say in the children’s seizure. Barnevernet is the judge, the prosecution, the jury, and the executioner. Note, too, that Barnevernet can also deprive parents of their parental rights, in toto, without court order.

Norway‘s secularism

To sum up, this is one facet of Norway I discovered during my stay of 66.6 hours there. The older Norwegian generation is shocked by what it witnesses today but feel helpless. Norway has embraced a “culture of youth,” where anyone over the age of forty (40) is considered and viewed as old, irrelevant, and outdated. The over the 40-crowd no longer shapes Norway, its culture, values, direction, or future. The young do. The younger generation is disinterested in the horrific policies the generation before them adopted and implemented to disestablish the family and marriage as institutions. The youth is aloof to the social decay eroding their country. To them this is a sign of progress. Once Norway struck oil in the 1960s it became wealthy. And its wealth estranged it from God, Christianity, and traditional values. But not only faith, religion, and Christianity have collapsed in Norway. So has the family.

On April 7, 2016 the US based Institute for Family Studies issued a report titled Cohabitation, Marriage, and Union Stability in Europe. The report was authored by the Dutch family sociologist Jaap Dronkers. [Details: http://family-studies.org/cohabitation-marriage-and-union-instability-in-europe-2/] It provides detailed statistical data on family and marriage stability and instability in twelve (12) countries, among them Norway, Romania, and the United States. The study focused on the marital status of the population between 21 and 79 years of age in each of these countries. According to Dronkers’ study 86.3% of the people in this age bracket in Romania are married. In contrast, only 41% of Norwegians in this age bracket are married. By the same token, 28.5% of Norwegians in this age bracket cohabit without being married. In Romania this percentage is much smaller, at only  8.6%.

The consequences of this social collapse are everywhere to see, but they are also reflected in the mental state of the people. The post-oil discovery Norway has been a perpetual social experiment. A very unnatural one. More than 10% of Norway’s population consists of immigrants who bring to Norway diverse religions, cultural values, and traditions. Norway does not tolerate any of this, however. Unlike the United States where just about everyone, born or not born in the United States, believes in the “melting pot” that American has become, Norway and Norwegians do not believe in this concept or accept it. In Norway there is only one way, the Norwegian way. One mind, one thinking, one state of mind, one value paradigm, one mental mold. Respect for diversity of values is inexistent. People are fearful to express what they think. I found people fearful and suspicious of one another, and neighbors afraid to express to each other their feelings for fear of being labeled politically incorrect or outdated.

Does faith and religion fit into all this? Well, as you might expect, they do not. Many of the traditional Christians, few and dwindling in numbers, have been remolded to fit the new mental paradigm – the state of mind of the New Norway, the Norway at the start of the Third Millennium.

The New Norway is stubbornly ubiquitous. It is present even on the plane and in its flight magazines. As I boarded the plane in Bergen to leave Norway, on Saturday a little after 6 in the morning, I started leafing through the February 2016 edition of Scandinavian Airlines magazine. On page 98 it featured the life of Amalie Skram, a Nineteenth Century writer hailed as “Norway’s pioneering feminist writer.” I was struck by what the article emphasized, and the prominence it gave to  aspects of the writer’s life. She was the daughter of an (allegedly) irresponsible father. She had been married twice and divorced twice. Her marriages were unhappy. One of the husbands was (allegedly) unfaithful and caused her to become depressed. The divorces were the husbands’ fault. Notably, she was acclaimed for tackling avant-garde subjects, among them “the depiction of female sexuality.” That was, I said to myself, a harbinger of what Norway had become in recent decades – a land where the sexual revolution triumphed, family and marriage as institutions collapsed, the state confiscated marriage, children, and parenthood and is on the way to criminalizing parenting. Frighteningly, it is a land where parents, like my clients, have become enemies of the state.

Peter Costea