Wednesday, May 18

Is it always in the child’s best interest to be heard?

  • Margunn Ødemark

    Foster home consultant, Care department, Østensjø child welfare service

  • Joanne Hugo

    Child Welfare Consultant, Care Department, Østensjø Child Welfare Service

By getting involved in court rounds, some children can get strong reactions and major behavioral changes, the columnists write.

In practice, the Child Welfare Act requires children to get involved in matters that concern them. For the most vulnerable foster children, this can be extremely stressful.

This is a chronicle. Opinions in the text are at the writer’s expense.

In Norway, we have a very high threshold for moving children from their parents. Once the child has moved, the child welfare service must work actively to ensure that the parents regain their ability to care so that the family can be reunited. The parents can annually bring the case for an updated assessment in the court system.

In accordance with both the Child Welfare Act and the Constitution, children who are in contact with the child welfare service shall be given the opportunity to participate in all decisions that concern them.

This means that the child who lives in a foster home must receive sufficient and adapted information when the parents request a new assessment in the court system. The child should be free to express his or her views, it should be listened to, and the child’s voice should be emphasized according to age and maturity.

We believe this provides good legal certainty and practice in many cases. But not in all.

The most vulnerable children

For some children, these annual court rounds are extremely demanding. These are the children who do not want to move back to their parents, but who want to stay in the foster family.

In a meeting with the parents, these children become scared and insecure. Some of them are retraumatized.

They experience that their security in the foster home is threatened by the parents wanting them home or wanting more time together. The children are activated only by the topic of contact and contact with parents.

And every time that happens, their development is put on hold or reversed.

Physical and mental reactions

When involved in court rounds, some children may experience severe reactions and major behavioral changes, such as altered eating and sleeping patterns.

Some pee and have extravagant behavior. Others vomit, have diarrhea or constipation.

Many alternate between strong rejection and extreme need for closeness. They show increased fear and anxiety about being abandoned, or that the foster parents will die.

Children with a good language can suddenly use a baby voice and have their needs met as an infant.

During these periods, it becomes extra difficult to keep friends, which is basically a challenge for many of them. For some, the reactions may last for several weeks.

Children’s need for peace and security

Our assessment as child welfare educators is that these vulnerable children must be able to be shielded from the court rounds.

First and foremost, they need peace in their new everyday life. They should make up for lost time from the start of life with poor care, instead of sailing further aft.

Several of the children we follow up even ask to be released. But the Child Welfare Act is clear. The child must be informed to be given the opportunity to express himself or herself before new decisions are made.

Children can naturally not be forced to express themselves, but they must be informed to be given the opportunity.

In one case (HR2019–2301-A), the Supreme Court has opened up for exceptions to the rule for when children are to be involved. However, the threshold for this is very high. In our experience too high.

Take a stand on big questions

What we observe in practice is that when these vulnerable children are informed of an impending case, the injury has already occurred.

The children are asked to take a stand on major questions that are practically impossible to answer: “Where is it best for you to live?” “How often do you want to be together?”

They become involved in an adult conflict. This at the same time as they are often traumatized children with one or more diagnoses of attachment problems. They are left with a feeling of insecurity about their own future.

We are concerned that the children who have actually been given a new, safe care base will not have peace to flourish there.

And the paradox is that this happens because of their right to participate.

Deteriorated relationship between parents and children

Repeated legal rounds also go beyond the relationship the child has with his biological parents.

Our work to ensure that the child has the best possible relationship with his or her parents after moving, we experience being disturbed and made more difficult when the child is involved in all court rounds.

The child does not feel seen, respected, understood or recognized by the parents. Many become so angry with their parents that they no longer want any contact with them. Unfortunately, we see this in several of our cases.

The relationship between the child and its parents becomes a wound that never gets a chance to heal. The crust is torn off again and again. Possible future reunion and increased togetherness will be more difficult to achieve.

When right becomes a duty

We believe that the wording of the Child Welfare Act in practice requires children to get involved in all matters that concern them. For the most vulnerable foster children, this is extremely stressful.

We see this as employees in the child welfare service up close – daily. What was meant to be good for the child, in practice, becomes the opposite.

Should the right to participate in one’s own case outweigh protection and security?

And can Norway vouch for this?

We who are to be a pioneering country when it comes to children’s rights: Was this really the intention of the law?

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