The custody battle in Norway

For months now, a Bengali family has been mobilising support to get their children back from Norwegian authorities.

Published: 06th March 2012 11:57 PM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 06:30 PM   |  A+A-

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A screen grab of Anurup Bhattacharya with his kid.

On March 8, 2012, the visas of Bengali siblings Abhigyan and Aishwarya Bhattacharya, living in Stavanger, Norway will expire. But Norwegian officials will be applying for a residential permits for the brother and sister that will allow them to stay in the country. The fate of the two children, whose parents are caught in a custody row with Norwegian authorities, has been making international news for the last couple of months.

The application seeking residential status was not filed with the consent of the parents, Sagarika and Anurup Bhattacharya. On the contrary, the parents do not want to extend their stay, but to return to India. However, they have no say in matters concerning their children. In fact, officials took the children forcibly from the parents last year. The incident has since been widely reported in international media and set off a number of debates in various fora.

What Happened to Abhigyan and Aishwarya?

In May 2011 Abhigyan, now three years old, and his one-year-old sister Aishwarya, were removed from their home in Stavanger, Norway, where they were living with their parents Sagarika and Anurup. Aishwarya was only six months old at that time, and she was still being breastfed by her mother. They were first shifted to a temporary shelter and then placed in the care of two different homes, for ‘foster’ care.

Norway and its Allure

Anurup Bhattacharya, a geoscientist by profession, moved to Norway with his family in 2006. He chose the city of Stavanger, famous for the Battle of Hafrsfjord that took place some time between 872-900 (Historians differ on the exact dates).

The victor in the battle, Harald Fairhair, unified the area as Norway and became its first king. Norway continues to be a constitutional monarchy. Norway, part of the Scandinavian countries, and very much part of the Viking lore, is one of the most affluent countries in the world, and its GDP (Gross Domestic Product, which is a measure of a country’s prosperity) is the fourth highest in the world. The country is rich in petroleum and natural gas, as well as minerals.

As the second least densely populated country in Europe, Norway also has a tradition of being involved in the way children are brought up. The country’s Child Protective Services, called Barnevern, is aimed at protecting children growing up in difficult family environments.

Why Foster Care for the Siblings?

The problems for the Bhattacharya family began when teachers at the kindergarten school felt that Abhigyan was ‘distant’ ( withdrawn, not very social), and had an ‘attachment disorder’. He was found to bang his hand on the floor as well.

Acting on the teachers’ observations, local child welfare authorities frequently visited the Bhattacharya home and observed the way the parents raised their children, for five months. They found that Sagarika used her hands (not fork and spoon) to feed her son; they also reportedly found that she did not have a diaper table for changing nappies. They thought the mother was clinically depressed.

Child welfare authorities found it unacceptable that the boy (then two-and-a-half years old) slept in his father’s bed, and not in a separate one. They felt that the father was more committed to his work and official travel than to his children.

Based on the report, both the children were taken from the parents by the CPS on May 11 last year. A family court ruled against the decision of the child services department, but this was overturned by a higher court. On November 30 the Norwegian court ruled that Abhigyan and Aishwarya would live in separate foster homes until they attained the age of 18. The parents would have visitation rights of one hour duration three times a year, and under supervision from Norwegian officials. Aishwarya was not even a year old then — she turned one on December 6.

Norway is Mum, but Mom Says it’s a Cultural Problem

Norway’s CPS safeguards its report, and the contents are never given out. It does not make public the observations leading to the removal of a child from his or her family and the placing of the child under foster care. However, there is no law in Norway that requires the concealment of the identity of the child or parents in question. Nor is there a media gag, preventing the parents from telling their side of the story to the media. Thus the children’s parents were free to speak out.

So what we know is based on what the parents have told the media. Sagarika felt that the entire row was a result of a cultural misunderstanding. Refusing to confirm or deny her version of events, Norway merely demurred, saying that cultural prejudice had no role in the entire row. Sagarika also alleged that no medical tests were performed on her before certifying her as ‘clinically depressed’.

By December 2011 the couple had appealed to West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Indian government to help regain the custody of the children. The custody row was widely covered by leading media houses in India, before becoming major international news.

Sagarika’s parents too played a part in nudging the Indian government into intervening, by mobilising support. CPM leader Brinda Karat and BJP leader Sushama Swaraj came out in support of the parents.

Swaraj in fact termed the act of the Norwegian CPS ‘kidnapping’.

India Talks Tough

Following a sit-in protest in Delhi by the children’s grandparents, India’s Foreign Minister S M Krishna talked tough. He assured the family that the children would be brought back ‘at any cost.’ India also told Norway that the ‘children were neither orphans, nor were they ‘stateless’ and sought their return. The Norwegian ambassador was summoned on February 15 and India’s position made clear to him.

India sent special envoy Madhusudhan Ganapathy to Oslo for talks on February 27.

Norway’s Response

Both Abhigyan and Aishwarya are still in foster care and their parents have met the children only once after the November 30 verdict. In February it was an emotional, one-hour meeting for the parents. The family reunion took place under the supervision of the Norwegian authorities.

What the World Says About Norway’s CPS

In 2005 the United Nations’ Committee on the Rights of the Child voiced concerns over the number of children being removed from their biological families and placed in foster care. The Committee felt Norway should take such a step only as a last resort.

Marianne Haslev Skanland, professor emeritus, Bergen, Norway, on her website has presented a number of similar instances, where children from multicultural or backgrounds were removed to foster care by authorities in Norway and Sweden, and said that such events are normal in the Scandinavian countries.

Cases mentioned on the website include that of a Polish child , whose rescue by Poland ended up with Norway taking to Polish courts on the issue. Norway lost. According to her, even autism is attributed to ‘abusive, deficient parenting’, and not looked at as an illness.

Talks Pay Off

Meanwhile, the diplomatic parleys began to pay off. Norway offered no objection when the children’s uncle Arunabhas Bhattacharya, a dentist by profession, came forward to adopt his brother’s children.

In February, Norway indicated that it would not object to the children being given to the care of the dentist. Arunabhas has been staying at a hotel in that country, and meeting with welfare officials and psychologists who are assessing if he will be a fit guardian.

Hearing in March

The hearing on the uncle’s eligibility is scheduled for March 23. The courts are unlikely to go against the CPS’s recommendation. Svein Svendsen is the lawyer representing the Bhattacharyas in the custody row.

In fact, Gunnar Toresen, head of the Child Welfare Service has said, “ The uncle is a good custodian. We are not worried at this stage about the interaction the children will have with the parents and the grandparents.” There is every indication that the row will now end amicably.

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