STRASBOURG (Dagbladet): ‘Alarm bells ring for me when I see something like this. This is a close relationship. They’re friends. If I’d discovered something like this I’d have sounded the alarm,’ says Tor Monsen, former child welfare chief for Røyken Municipality.
On 17 October, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights will review a Norwegian child welfare case originating in this very municipality.
The case concerns a young mother whose son was taken into care. The foster parents were later allowed to adopt the boy. The ECHR will assess whether the forced adoption is a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which concerns the right to respect for family life.
Dagbladet has investigated claims from the boy’s biological mother and maternal grandmother. Both claim that a close personal relationship developed between the child welfare service’s case handler and the foster mother – who eventually became the boy’s adoptive mother.
The foster mother was present every time the biological mother was permitted to see her son after the boy was taken into care, something which allegedly cultivated a hostile atmosphere.
The case handler acted as supervisor during these sessions on several occasions and wrote reports on the sessions that were disadvantageous to the mother.
Monsen reacts angrily when Dagbladet shows him extensive Facebook correspondence between the case handler and the foster mother in 2010, during a period when the Norwegian court system was reviewing the boy’s case after he had been taken from his mother only a few weeks after he was born in 2008.
On 18 April 2010, four days before the judgment that took the boy away from his biological mother was passed by the court of appeal, the foster mother wrote to the case handler: ‘Hope you’ve had a nice weekend :) We’ve been redecorating the living room all weekend, it’s going to be so nice :)’
The case handler replies: ‘I’ve been relaxing pretty much all weekend. Exciting to have a “new” living room. I’m sure it’ll be lovely… I think you’re excited about other things too (smiley face) That’s bound to go well too :)’
The foster mother replies: ‘sure will :) counting on it!’
The day after the judgment was passed, 23 April, the foster mother writes: ‘It’s been “Hoppe sa gåsa” [Norwegian children’s song] all day here :) Hugs!’
The case worker replies: ‘:) long may it last, that’ s how life’s supposed to be :) hugs and best wishes to you’
This is the only point in the Facebook correspondence between the case handler and the foster mother, which spans several months, where they seem to discuss the case. Otherwise the dialogue between them concerns day-to-day life and weekend plans or wishing each other good morning, good night, happy Christmas and happy Easter.
Midwife assessments suppressed
The legal documents state that the young mother got in touch with the child welfare service while she was pregnant. She asked for and was given a three-month placement at a maternal home where she could learn “to be a good mother”.
The child welfare service contacted the postnatal ward at the hospital and asked the midwives to assess the mother and child after the birth until they were discharged. The hospital submitted a report to the child welfare service on 13 October 2008.
The report was extremely positive for the young mother. It states that she was breastfeeding when they were discharged and that the midwives saw no cause for concern when it came to the interaction between mother and child.
This was in stark contrast with the report from the maternal home. The mother felt she was poorly treated there and withdrew her consent to the stay after only a couple of weeks. That was when her son was taken from her and given an emergency placement.
The child welfare service acted on the basis of the report from the maternal home and concluded that the mother’s caregiving abilities were very lacking. One of the main causes for concern was that the baby had lost weight after his birth, and they did not think that the mother understood the severity of this.
Both the child welfare service and the maternal home faced harsh criticism in a judgment from Drammen District Court on 19 August 2009.
The child welfare service was criticised for not letting the midwife from the hospital make a statement about the prenatal period before the county social welfare board. The maternal home received extreme criticism for suppressing test results showing that the baby had an eye infection which may have explained the listlessness and poor appetite.
The head of the maternal home has not responded to Dagbladet’s enquiries.
The district court ruled that the boy should be released back into his mother’s care, but this never happened. Later, the court of appeal came to the opposite conclusion. The court ruled that the mother was not in a position to provide him with adequate care, and so he remained in foster care.
In 2012, the Norwegian court system ruled that the foster parents should be permitted to adopt the boy, even though his biological mother had got married and had another child. The mother and her husband now have two children who live with them. The child welfare service in their new home municipality has never doubted their caregiving abilities.
Tor Monsen has not had direct dealings with the case, which started in 2008, but he was child welfare chief in Røyken when the forced adoption finally went through in 2012. He thinks the child welfare service’s suppression of the positive assessments from the midwives at the hospital is “exhibit A” when it comes to proving this case had “other drivers”.
‘This isn’t how it should be at all. We have to be objective. I hope and believe we would have handled this completely differently from 2012 onwards.’
Monsen assumed responsibility for a child welfare service that was largely based on expensive external consultants. It was thirty-five per cent over budget.
Monsen turned Røyken’s child welfare service on its head. He got rid of the consultants, introduced extensive use of family advice services and required the case handlers to work preventively and to cooperate with public health nurses and the Educational and Psychological Counselling Service.
This led to a huge reduction in the number of care orders issued for children and meant that the service’s finances were back under control. Monsen has received a good deal of recognition for this. He is currently the head of childhood and youth services in Hurum.
The child welfare service’s case handler, who was an external consultant with her own firm, denies the allegations that she and the foster mother who later became the child’s adoptive mother developed too close a relationship.
The case handler also does not want to answer any of Dagbladet’s questions, whether about the Facebook contact or the conduct of the child welfare service.
The foster mother who became the boy’s adoptive mother has referred Dagbladet to her lawyer, Mette Yvonne Larsen, for answers.
Larsen says that the foster mother and the case handler did not know each other from before, but that frequent contact was required between them at the start because he was a very vulnerable and undernourished child for whom a care order had been issued.
‘We acknowledge that a rapport developed between them that might make it seem as though they were friends. That is unfortunate. But it is absolutely not the case that they were or are friends,’ the adoptive parents’ lawyer emphasises.
Larsen points out that it is not uncommon for foster parents to participate when biological parents are spending time with their child, particularly when that child is very young.
Current child welfare chief for Røyken, Anne Solbjørg, says that she is unable to comment on the case since it is now a matter between the biological mother and the state.
Knut Magnus Myrvold was the child welfare chief in Røyken when the young mother had her firstborn taken from her.
He claims that the duty of confidentiality prevents him from answering questions about why the child welfare service suppressed the midwives’ assessments or the allegedly close relationship that developed between the case handler and the foster mother.