Scandinavia is in vogue on the American Left. Throughout this campaign season, Bernie Sanders and his disciples have pointed to the region as a shining example of their vision for “democratic socialism.” (After all, images of quaint Nordic streets are far more appealing than disaster zones like Venezuela.) While opinions vary on just how economically socialist Scandinavia really is, its nations undoubtedly offer a far more comprehensive social safety net than the United States.
But a recent child welfare controversy in Norway shows the dark side of this utopia. When government assumes a “nanny state” responsibility for its citizens, it also tends to assume a frightening degree of control over their daily lives. The results can be devastating—and decidedly undemocratic.
The Trouble Begins
At the center of the uproar are Marius and Ruth Bodnariu, a Romanian-Norwegian couple, and their five young children: Eliana (10), Naomi (7), Matthew (5), John (2), and Ezekiel (8 months).* Until recently, the family lived quietly on a small farm in southwest Norway. Marius, a Romanian citizen, works for the municipality of Naustdal as an IT specialist. His wife, Ruth, a Norwegian by birth, is a pediatric nurse employed by the local hospital.
Marius and Ruth are Pentecostal Christians who met in Romania and speak Romanian at home. Before November 2015, their daughters attended the local public school.
That’s where the trouble first began. Last October, Eliana and Naomi got into an argument on the school bus with another child. While investigating the squabble, the school principal interviewed the girls, questioning them extensively about their home and family environment. Following this interview, she made a legally required phone call to the local child protection office (called Barnevernet in Norway).
The principal’s report has been a source of controversy, with Christian media claiming the investigation centered on the family’s religion, while others contend child abuse was the government’s sole concern. After reviewing summaries of the official record from the family’s lawyers, I’m convinced that both spanking and religion were significant areas of concern. The principal told child services that the Bodnariu family “has a very strong faith and view that God punishes sin,” and that the parents occasionally spank the girls—a disciplinary method outlawed in Norway.
The principal added the girls were quite talkative, and that teachers sometimes doubted their credibility when they were trying to get out of trouble (a contention that becomes interesting in light of later events). However, she also stated the parents were very resourceful and did a good job providing for the children’s needs. She told CPS the children did not fear going home, and she did not believe they were being abused.
On the contrary, the principal—who lives in the family’s neighborhood—told CPS that they are united, “a true family,” and that she had observed them doing many activities together. She simply recommended that Barnevernet provide counseling services to the family.
Barnevernet swung into action, first interviewing the children’s doctors (who reported good medical care and no signs of abuse), later contacting police about the spanking allegations. An internal Barnevernet document reveals the family’s religion was indeed an extensive matter for discussion.
“The children are talking about forgiveness and how hard it is to do what the Bible says,” the document states. While most practicing Christians would recognize human sinfulness and the need for forgiveness as core doctrines, CPS concluded that this teaching may have caused the children stress. It was decided that Barnevernet should go to the girls’ school and interview them without their parents’ knowledge.
Horrors and Heartbreak Ensue
Eliana and Naomi left for school as usual on Monday, November 16. They never came home. Later that day, Barnevernet social workers came to the school to interview the girls. When questioned, they confirmed they were sometimes spanked—saying their father spanked them “lightly.” Asked if they were afraid to go home, they said they were not. The family’s religion also came up in discussion, including the subject of God answering prayer.
It’s impossible to determine whether many of the girls’ statements were volunteered or obtained through leading questions, but it’s hard to imagine why God answering prayer would be considered an appropriate topic for a child welfare investigation.
After this interview, Barnevernet seized Eliana and Naomi from school and took them into custody—an emergency measure without a judge’s order. The same afternoon, Marius was arrested, while Ruth was notified of the girls’ seizure and told to bring her three small boys to the police station. Marius and Ruth spent the next three hours being interrogated separately, without being notified of the charges against them, without lawyers, and without a translator for Marius. They both admitted to spanking the children but denied more serious charges of abuse.
Following the interrogation, the three-month-old baby was returned, but Marius and Ruth were informed that their boys, then 4 and 2, had also been forcibly taken into state care. Marius was charged with physical abuse of his children (charges which were later dropped due to lack of evidence). Both he and Ruth stated they were willing to undergo counseling to help them adapt to Norwegian standards for child discipline. Social workers assured them such a plan would be developed, and they allowed the shaken couple to return home with their infant son.
The next evening, after dark, Barnevernet unexpectedly descended on the family farm and seized the baby. In a chilling exchange, social workers advised a distraught Ruth to sign statements that Marius had been beating her, so she could be reunited with her children at a shelter. She refused to commit perjury against her husband, even at the cost of separation from her children. The heartache of this moment can only be imagined.
Two weeks later, Barnevernet met with Marius and Ruth. By any reasonable standard, the family should have been reunited at this point, with whatever supervision and counseling the state deemed necessary. Medical examinations on the children had revealed no signs of injury—including an x-ray exonerating the parents from charges of shaking the baby. In fact, Barnevernet had obtained no new evidence of any kind against the parents. There were no affidavits from doctors, neighbors, or family members—nothing more than the girls’ original statements, given in easily manipulated, closed-door interviews.
The school principal, who had contacted CPS in the first place, strongly argued against family separation. “The headmaster . . . doesn’t think the parents are doing something to physically harm children,” the official record notes. She was “opposed to taking the children away when she felt this was not in their best interest.”
The county and municipality also went to bat for the Bodnariu family. The county noted Norway’s Child Welfare Act only allows children to be removed if they are being “significantly harmed,” a high threshold Barnevernet had failed to prove. “The parents are fully capable to properly exercise their care for the children,” the county stated, reasonably adding that “the situation can be correct[ed] by adopting measures at home.”
Despite all this, Marius and Ruth could tell the meeting wasn’t going well. They promised they would never again use physical discipline, stating clearly, “It will not happen again.” Barnevernet was unmoved. The children would not be returned to a home of “systematic violence,” they said, but would instead be placed in three separate foster homes scattered across Norway.
Marius was denied any visitation; Ruth would be allowed to nurse her baby twice a week and see her small boys once a week for two hours. The two girls would have absolutely no contact with either parent outside 10-minute phone calls. The Bodnariu family had been dismembered, and not a single judge had been involved in the process.
Tyranny of the Bureaucrats
Sadly, the Bodnarius’ story is far from an isolated incident. Barnevernet has become notorious around the world for its intrusions on family autonomy and unwarranted removals of children, particularly children born to foreign nationals. But the Bodnarius’ story has galvanized the anti-Barnevernet movement, sparking dozens of protests at Norwegian embassies and consulates. A Facebook page supporting the family has more than 27,000 likes, and an online petition has gathered over 60,000 signatures. Just last week, the BBC published a story shedding light on the Bodnarius’ case, as well as similar incidents across Norway.
Among Americans, though, reactions to the Bodnarius’ plight have been mixed. Allegations of child abuse are a serious matter, and we tend to approach these cases with the belief that the legal system will operate fairly and seek the truth. This was my own assumption at first. Surely, I thought, an advanced country like Norway has a fair, above-board legal process, with checks and balances, designed to remove children in only the worst-case scenarios.
That’s where I, like many Americans, would have been wrong. Barnevernet is structured to operate as a law unto itself. Its decisions are not subject to meaningful judicial review. Instead of coming before a court of law, Barnevernet, an administrative agency, conducts its hearings before an unaccountable board made up of three to five people, called a “county social welfare board.”
Norwegian psychologist Einar Salvesen, a former Barnevernet expert who is now calling for reforms, describes the process this way: “In 99% of the cases, I think, the county board follows the CPS decision and parents have little opportunity to bring in witnesses and disprove the claims of CPS. So [the parents] are at a disadvantage. . . . I’ve seen myself in some of these cases, that this was wrong. The children should not have been taken out of the home.”
The initial county board proceedings do not involve a presiding judge, and participants do not give sworn testimony under penalty of perjury. The rules of evidence do not apply, and the accused has no right to cross-examine his or her accuser. Barnevernet can prevent expert witnesses from testifying on the parents’ behalf.
“Even the most elementary aspects of due process are lacking,” says Peter Costea, a Texas civil rights attorney working to help the Bodnariu family. This is the system under which Norwegian parents may be stripped of one of their most fundamental human rights: the right to raise their own children.
After the Bodnarius’ children were seized in November, they had to wait until mid-March—four months later—just to get a hearing before the county board. Although the law requires that the hearing take place within six weeks, Barnevernet waited 16 weeks to comply. This stands in stark contrast to emergency child removals in the United States.
“In Texas, for instance,” Costea explains, “children may be taken away from their parents against their will, but only for ten days and pursuant to court order. Once alerted to the possibility of child abuse, social workers must investigate and produce affidavits, attesting under penalty of perjury that the facts are true. The affidavits are then given to a judge, who determines, in light of clear legal standards and definitions, whether abuse has occurred warranting the return of the children. Within ten days the court will hold evidentiary hearings and determine the fate of the children. None of this happens in Norway.”
While Norway is certainly entitled to make its own laws, Costea argues that its system violates the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which it has signed. Besides its cavalier treatment of a child’s right “to know and be cared for by his or her parents” (Article 7) and “to preserve his or her identity, including nationality, name and family relations” (Article 8), Norway’s clearest violation is found in Article 9.
“State Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will,” the treaty states, “except when competent authorities subject to judicial review determine, in accordance with applicable law and procedures, that such separation is necessary for the best interests of the child” (emphasis added). Norway’s practice of separating families via administrative hearings without real judicial review is a clear violation of this international treaty—and of the fundamental rights of children and families.
How Barnevernet Harms Children
Indeed, it’s important to emphasize that Barnevernet is not just trampling the rights of parents. It is doing real harm to vulnerable, voiceless children.
No serious-minded person would deny that, tragically, some families are unwilling or unfit to care for children. This is why foster care and adoption exist, and they are important remedies for children who truly need them. In fact, I’m president of a charity that has worked in Romania for 18 years doing just that: finding adoptive and foster families for abandoned, neglected, and abused children. For these children, foster care and especially adoption can bring redemption and healing.
I use the words “redemption” and “healing” to emphasize a crucial truth: separation from one’s birth family is a very real trauma. Studies have repeatedly shown the importance of bonding and attachment in childhood development, demonstrating that biological bonds between mother and child begin developing even before birth. One researcher specifically studied the effects of childhood instability on children, concluding: “Kids who had secure attachment histories but suffer losses will become less secure.”
Americans hardly need a scholarly article to tell them that growing up in foster care creates a whole slew of statistically adverse outcomes: physical, educational, behavioral, and especially emotional. But I must highlight one area of risk, because it’s a risk to which Barnevernet has wantonly exposed Eliana and Naomi Bodnariu.
In the hearing of March 14-15, Marius and Ruth were finally able to learn a few details about where their children were living. One fact that emerged: Eliana and Naomi had been placed with a foster mother who has a live-in boyfriend. What’s more, this home also houses three additional foster children, including a 17-year-old male.
It has been documented in the United States that children living with two married, biological parents are at the absolute lowest risk for sexual abuse. Children in foster care are 10 times more likely to be sexually abused, while children living with a single mother who has a live-in partner are a whopping 20 times more likely. To this we must add the well-documented risk of child-on-child sexual abuse prevalent in group foster care. Since Barnevernet intervened to save Eliana and Naomi from spankings and Bible lessons, their risk of being sexually molested has skyrocketed.
Contrary to what Barnevernet may believe, children are not chips on a game board who can be moved from family to family without consequence. By refusing even to attempt family reunification and counseling, they have shown breathtaking disregard for the proven ideal situation for children: growing up with their own, married mother and father.
In the words of Peter Costea, “The harshness of Barnevernet’s ruling evidences that the decision was intended to be punitive, not curative.” The Naustdal CPS office has become a bigger abuser in the lives of these five children than their parents ever were.
Americans may disagree on the wisdom of spanking as a method of discipline. But the fact remains that it has been a commonly accepted parenting practice throughout the developed world and is legal in all 50 states and most Western nations. It is not banned or even mentioned in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Is spanking therefore such a heinous practice that it outweighs the risk of sexual abuse? Of mental, physical, and psychological damage caused by growing up in foster care? Of losing natural relationships with parents, siblings, and extended family? Of losing religious, linguistic, and cultural heritage?
For abandoned children, these benefits have been lost already. But for children whose parents desperately want to raise them, civilized societies should do their best to facilitate and support family integrity. To needlessly destroy the family unit is to harm children.
Why Americans Should Care
“Fine,” you might be thinking, “but why should this far-off case matter to me?” For several reasons.
First, it should remind Americans that socialist systems will always compete with the family. This is clearly reflected in Norway’s child welfare law, which ominously declares: “The municipality shall closely monitor the conditions in which children live.” Once a collectivist mindset takes hold, it’s only a matter of time before it begins to trickle down into parenting and family policies. Most Americans who advocate socialism don’t foresee or understand its disastrous natural ends—both economic and cultural.
Second, this case highlights a divide between Eastern and Western Europe we shouldn’t overlook. A Romanian-American friend put it this way: “A staple of Russian propaganda is to reinforce the notion that the West’s emphasis on individual freedom is, in fact, a ruse used to justify the state’s insidious assault on the traditional notion of the family.” Norway’s persecution of a Romanian Christian family, a case well-publicized in the Russian media, feeds this narrative. Romania remains a pro-Western (or at least anti-Russian) nation, but its neighbors are on the edge. America would do well to send a clear signal that Norway’s heavy-handedness is, in fact, the very antithesis of freedom.
Finally, this case should matter simply because it’s an injustice—and unlike so many of those in the world, it’s not hard to solve. Barnevernet has the power to bring the Bodnariu children home tomorrow. In fact, its March hearing resulted in baby Ezekiel, now eight months old, being returned to his parents. Barnevernet has also backed off its original plan to put the children up for adoption. It’s now “merely” seeking permanent foster placement for Eliana, Naomi, Matthew, and John until adulthood.
That hearing will take place May 31, but attorneys worry that the longer the family is kept apart, the smaller their chance of reunification becomes. Incredibly, while Norway’s child welfare law contains no mention of a child’s natural bond with his parents, it does acknowledge a potential bond with foster parents. After two years in foster care, the law becomes biased against returning the child home.
Norway is feeling the international pressure, but family advocates say America’s opinion is the one that really counts. They hope Americans and U.S. politicians will take note and speak out. Just as we would not look kindly upon countries who punish crimes by stoning or amputation, neither should we accept excessive, inhumane punishments levied by “civilized” nations.
Norway should immediately restructure its child welfare system to restore humanity and accountability, in compliance with international law. But first, it should reunite the Bodnariu family and end this nightmare.
* Although some media have declined to mention the children’s names for privacy, I am following the family’s lead in publicly referring to the children by name.