An American mother now living in Norway is asking for the return of her three American-born children after they were removed from the family home in May, less than a year after moving to the Scandinavian country from Atlanta, Georgia.
American citizen Natalya Shutakova is now speaking out a month after her kids aged 7 to 11 were removed from the home about 70 miles southwest of Oslo by Norway’s controversial child protective services agency, Barnevernet, on May 20.
The children — 11-year-old Brigita, 9-year-old Nikita and 7-year-old Elizabeth — have been placed in foster care. The parents now have limited visiting rights after not being able to see their children for several weeks.
Shutakova says that she and her husband, Lithuanian citizen Zigintas Aleksandravicius, were accused of “child mistreatment,” a claim that they outright deny.
Shutakova kept quiet about the ordeal for nearly a month, claiming that she was told that she could be jailed for about two years if they spoke publicly about the case before June 11.
But now that June 11 has passed, Shutakova is opening up about the case.
In a recent podcast interview with Björn Korf, the founder of the Austrian-based advocacy group Step Up 4 Children’s Rights, Shutakova said that her kids were removed from the home on a Monday night following a long holiday weekend where they celebrated their oldest daughter’s birthday.
During the celebration, the parents gave 11-year-old Brigita a cell phone.
“After misbehaving over the weekend, we decided to take it back in disciplinary measure. She got really upset with us for taking that present away from her,” Shutakova explained.
On Monday, Shutakova got a message from Brigita’s teacher saying that her daughter didn’t have lunch and was hungry. Shutakova told Korf that she always packs lunches for her children and went to the school to see why her child did not have anything to eat.
The teacher told Shutakova that it was not the first time that Brigita went hungry with no lunch. Shutakova said she was “shocked” to hear such a thing because she always sends her kids “to school with a full lunchbox.”
According to Shutakova, Brigita has had a history of lying in the past and believes her daughter may have been lying on that occasion.
“She was hiding the lunch in the bookbag,” Shutakova said. “That was the reason she was hungry.”
“Also on my May 20th, she had complained about parents taking away her phone over the weekend,” Shutakova continued. “On the 17th of May, everybody saw her happy on her birthday during the celebration and everything. On Monday, when she came back to school from the long weekend, she wasn’t happy. That really caught the teacher’s attention because, what could have happened?”
That Monday night, Shutakova said, three police cars came to the house after 9 p.m. when the kids were sleeping. The whole family was taken to a police station near their home in Notodden. The family was held there for over 24 hours, she said.
“It was the most horrible thing that has ever happened to me in my life because I never ever broke the law,” she declared. “This was shocking to me to be in jail for the first time in my life for something that I have not committed.”
She told Korf that she and her husband were accused of “child mistreatment.”
“That is pretty much all they say. After that, we were questioned by the Barnevernet,” she explained. “Then the police called us again for more questioning. It hit our family so bad. This is not why I came to Norway. I came here for a good life.”
Shutakova told The Christian Post in a Facebook message that she was asked by police investigators if she or her husband ever hit any of their children. In Norway, it is illegal for parents to spank their children.
“The accusations are not true,” Shutakova assured of the claim they hit their children. “Just last Friday, we met with all 3 children and our oldest daughter said she is sorry for all the things she said she didn't mean to say that. She regrets everything. She was crying and begging CPS to let go to mom and dad.”
“CPS was present last Friday when our oldest was saying she has made the worst mistake in her life,” Shutakova maintained. “She clearly said she didn't mean to say all those things.”
Shutakova said that it is up to the court to decide whether or not her children should be returned.
The family had its first court hearing on June 6. On June 7, the court ruled it was best to leave the children in foster care.
The family’s lawyers filed an appeal of the court decision. Shutakova said no date has been set for an appeal hearing.
The family moved to Norway from Georgia last September. According to Shutakova, Aleksandravicius was deported from the U.S. for overstaying his visa. He initially went back to Lithuania before getting a job in Oslo.
Shutakova decided it was best to move the family to Norway so they could be together as one family unit.
But for nearly one month, Shutakova and Aleksandravicius were not allowed to see their kids at all or even speak with them. Even on their youngest daughter's birthday, June 7, the couple wasn’t allowed to call or even send a birthday gift to their child.
Now, the parents are granted a weekly two-hour visit at a location of the agency’s choosing.
“The children have complained about some things, that they are barely ever getting any hot meals. My son is a nine-year-old. He was telling me that she [foster provider] only feeds us bread, bread, bread all the time, dry food,” Shutakova said.
“Even cats and dogs don’t eat dry food all the time. I come from a big family where I was cooking a lot. At least once per day, I would feed my children hot meals. Now that my child has been in a foster family for one month, he would tell me that they don’t feed us hot meals. They only give us dry food.”
During the visits with their children, the family is confined to a small room and is accompanied by a Barnevernet officer and a translator since the kids can speak both English and Russian.
“I was requesting to increase the hours. I know some families were allowed to actually bring the children home for a few hours and they said, ‘No, you can not bring them home,’” Shutakova said. “It’s a location they will pick and a fixed time.”
According to Shutakova, the U.S. Embassy in Oslo was notified about the case. However, the embassy allegedly only advised the family to cooperate with Barnevernet and work with their lawyers.
CP reached out to the U.S. Embassy in Oslo for comment on the family’s case. A response is pending.
Over 10,000 people have signed onto a CitizenGo petition asking U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to intervene on the family’s behalf.
“Barnavarnet has insinuated that there was a lack of routine for the children, and that this ‘potential neglect’ was enough reason to remove the children from their parents,” the petition reads. “I hope we can agree that none of this evidence warrants forcefully removing children from their parents.”
Shutakova thanked her congregation at New Life Atlanta for their prayers and support during this time.
“If the court decides not in my favor, then we will have to gather some meetings to go protest so that the U.S. government would see us and possibly help us,” she said.
This is not the first time that the Norwegian child services agency has removed children from the custody of American citizens or foreign nationals.
American mother Amy Jakobsen Bjørnevåg, who moved to Norway when she was 12, is on the verge of losing her years-long fight to regain custody of her son, Tyler. Bjørnevåg says Tyler was removed from her custody in 2013 when he was just 19 months old over concerns about the child’s health and weight.
International rights advocates have long spoken out against Barnevernet’s practice of removing children for arbitrary reasons without concrete proof of wrongdoing. Additionally, a number of parents investigated by Barnevernet have fled the country.
Last December, majority-Catholic Poland granted asylum to a mother and her 2-year-old daughter after Barnevernet tried to remove the child based on what the mother says are false allegations of drug abuse.
One mother told CP last year how her family fled to the United Arab Emirates after her family was harassed by the Barnevernet.
There was much global outcry in 2015 and 2016 after Barnevernet removed five children from the custody of Romanian parents accused of spanking their children. After months of demonstrations and protests at Norwegian embassies across the globe, the five children were released back to their parent's custody.