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Norwegian Child Services: A Tale of Ethnocentric Hegemony

The dominant child policy paradigm conceives children as uncritical, passive and vulnerable beings, who must be subject to the state's care, power and domination. Through the example of the Norwegian Child Welfare Services, this article identifies the underlying political and ideological agendas of the child protection industry. It also argues that western child protection policies often act as instruments of oppression to forcibly assimilate immigrants, especially from the East.

<_12.1_Runhead-LEFT_S>COMMENTARY <_12.1_Runhead-LEFT_S>COMMENTARY 19 20 Economic & Political Weekly 
 may 12, 2012 vol xlviI no 19
may 12, 2012 vol xlviI no 19 
 Economic & Political Weekly
<_06.1_Head_Serif_Bla>Norwegian Child Services <_06.4_Head_Serif_Bol>A Tale of Ethnocentric Hegemony <_01_Body_9.2_11/> <_08_Byline>Javaid Rashid, Aalya Amin <_07.1_Intro_Serif>The dominant child policy paradigm conceives children as uncritical, passive and vulnerable beings, who must be subject to the state’s care, power and domination. Through the example of the Norwegian Child Welfare Services, this article identifies the underlying political and ideological agendas of the child protection industry. It also argues that western child protection policies often act as instruments of oppression to forcibly assimilate immigrants, especially from the East. <_01_Body_9.2_11_drop>Beyond being a physical state, childhood is a complex and very diverse phase of life influenced by sociocultural, politico-economic and regional factors. Notions of childhood greatly vary in relation to space and time. There is emerging ethnographic evidence (Jenks 1996; James 1993; Hardyment 1995; Boyden 2003; Hart and Tyrer 2006; Prout 2008) that childhood is not “a monolith” or “a universal” normative category but a “socially constructed” phase of human life that is deeply embedded in structural contexts. But the Norwegian Child Welfare Services (NCWS), which was in the limelight recently for taking away two children from a non-resident Indian (NRI) couple and putting them in a foster home, brushed aside all this evidence and the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). The fundamental concepts that inform the thinking of the NCWS are drawn from the works of Kari Killén (1991, 1996), who has authored several texts on the neglect and abuse of children. Killén’s work has been criticised for lacking intellectual rigour and a sound empirical basis. Interestingly, his doctoral thesis was based on the study of a sample group of just 17 individuals. Nonetheless, these problematic and largely unfounded concepts continue to direct the orientation of the NCWS. <_01_Body_9.2_11>The NCWS does not recognise influential and comprehensive scientific studies but advocates and rationalises a new compulsory relationship between the welfare system, family and child, which is an outcome of a particular political and cultural enterprise. This state-child relationship is based on paternalistic and authoritarian notions of childhood, where the State is legislated to exercise power, control and discipline through welfare. Moreover, the NCWS is used as a tool to “discipline” and “civilise” immigrant, non-white and non-Nordic people by separating their children from their natural environments and putting them in foster homes. This approach, seemingly demonstrating the state’s sensitivity towards child welfare, is inspired by deep political, economical, ideological and ethnocentric biases. <_01_Body_9.2_11>This discussion places the “India-Norway child row” in the context of broader debates on cultural and ethnocentric hegemony. Further, it attempts to understand the political economy of the global child welfare industry and deconstruct the normative notions of childhood that are being globalised by the west, particularly by exporting them to developing nations through child rights and humanitarian agencies. <_03_Crosshead_9.2_11>India-Norway Child Row <_01_Body_9.2_11_no_i>In the now well-known case, in May 2011, a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter of an NRI couple were taken away by the NCWS and put into separate foster homes.1 “Force feeding”, “inappropriate rearing” and “neglect” were the allegations levelled against the parents. The authorities informed them that their children would remain in foster care until they reached the age of 18 and that they could only meet them twice a year for an hour. The objections of the parents to this remained unheard and the issue made head lines in January 2012 only when they requested the Government of India to intervene.2 This case need not be seen in isolation as the NCWS has a history of intervening in family affairs and separating children from their parents, which it arbitrarily defines as “in the best interest of the child”. These interventions mostly take place in the affairs of non-white and immigrant families. <_01_Body_9.2_11>According to Statistics Norway (2011),3 in 2007, the NCWS intervened in 11,700 cases. In 2008, there was a 3.8% increase in the number of cases. Almost 50,000 children received assistance from the NCWS in 2010. Recent figures show that Norway has more than 10,000 children in foster care or homes run by the NCWS. It has been estimated that nearly 80% of the complaints made to the NCWS end up in children being taken away from their parents and put in foster homes.4 A report released by the Norwegian Central Bureau of Statistics5 says that children of immigrant parents are three times more likely to be sent into foster care than others. The foster parents, who are generally Norwegian, are supposed to possess the best and appropriate parenting styles that are in the “best interest” of the children. They are paid ¤30,000 (Rs 20,79,875) per annum plus allowances and other benefits for each child they take care of.6 <_01_Body_9.2_11>The NCWS’ sensitivity to child welfare seems to vanish when there are complaints of abuse, neglect or exploitation of children in foster care. Such abuse often remains unreported, undocumented and hidden from the national and international community. A survey conducted in 2005 by Norwegian Social Research (NOVA), a social science research institute based in Oslo, interviewed 400 children in a care institution and reported that 23% of them expressed feelings of insecurity and fear, 33 children said they had been physically abused by the staff and 12 said they had been sexually assaulted by persons working in the institution. Norway’s Ministry of Children and Families did not carry out any investigation into this report. The reality is that the foster care industry is an expanding one in Scandinavian countries such as Norway. To sustain it, the NCWS has a closely tied-up network of social workers, who observe families to detect abuse or neglect; mental health experts, whose reports are used to categorise or label parents and children as mentally or psychologically ill; and county courts, which have close connections with experts and welfare officers and act in accordance with the wishes of the NCWS. The NCWS is actually part of a much bigger interventionist welfare industry that is tied to the global economic and neo-liberal system. <_01_Body_9.2_11>The politics around child rights or welfare has become an integral part of state discourses in the recent times. The state “owns” children and proudly puts them in categories of “national resources”, “future citizens” and “potential entities” that have to be regulated and channelised for national and cultural growth. This conceptualisation of children and childhood has roots in changing global political and economic circumstances, where modern states are now imbued with western capitalistic and neo-liberal beliefs (Hendrick 1992; Boyden 2003). So interventionist humanitarianism, based on a sense of cultural superiority and normative notions of childhood, feels entitled to crack down on immigrants, disregarding their sociocultural and economic contexts. <_03_Crosshead_9.2_11>Conceptualisations of Childhood <_01_Body_9.2_11_no_i>It is quite pertinent to briefly trace the history of how children have been conceptualised in different epochs. The historical trajectory shows a variety of conceptualisations of childhood that were shaped as responses to different social, economic, religious and political circumstances. In the 19th century, constructions of childhood were influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings emphasising the “natural goodness” of children; the Romantic movement’s “innocence” of children; and the Evangelical notion of children being born in “original sin”. The industrial revolution hugely influenced the state’s and society’s perceptions on children and their status in the social order. Children were seen as “economically valueless”, incompetent and dependent entities in need of adult care and protection. Growing urbanisation, migration and irregular growth during the industrial revolution brought issues on delinquency in children to the fore. This led to increasing attention being paid to the school as an institution and mechanism to control, discipline and regulate the behaviour of children. The chronologies of these constructions can be located in conceptually and ideologically diverse public identities, ranging from the Rousseauean “natural child”, the Romanticised “innocent child”, the Evangelical “polluted child” and the economically “valueless child” to the delinquent “vulnerable child”, the schooled “industrial child”, the individual “utilitarian child”, the psychological “developmental child”, the state’s “national child” and the welfare “idealised child” (Hendrick 1992; James 1993). <_01_Body_9.2_11>With empirical inputs from Piagetian developmental psychology and the transformation of the state into a more neo-liberal entity, children came to be seen as “human becomings” and “partial adults” who were important because of what they would become, not because of what they already were (Qvortrup 1991). They were seen as uncritical foot soldiers of adult hegemony, who were led passively into adulthood and lived to recreate particular statist and ideological discourses. Hence, the modern construction of childhood is a product of free-market, liberal capitalism and the emergence of the modern nation state with its authoritarian child-focused institutions. Child protection and welfare policies emanate from globalised, western constructions of childhood that intrinsically have an ethnocentric bias and are plagued by hegemonic authoritarianism and unrelated individualism. The resulting positivist and decontextualised approach appallingly neglects the variance and diversity of childhood that children experience in different cultures across the globe.

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