As the removal of five Romanian Pentecostal kids from their parents' custody over spanking allegations has enraged thousands of global supporters, some Christian leaders in Norway are combating the notion that parental and religious freedoms are being violated by the Norwegian government.
As The Christian Post has extensively reported, the five children of Ruth and Marius Bodnariu were removed from their parents custody on Nov. 16. after a school principal told Norwegian authorities about their oldest daughter's allegation that her parents spanked her and her siblings as a form of discipline.
As spanking and other forms of physical punishment are considered illegal under Norwegian law, the Barnevernet (Norway's child services agency) placed the five children of the Romanian Pentecostal migrant couple in three separate foster homes while their parents have been granted limited visitation rights.
While the Bodnariu parents wait until at least March for their next court hearing to determine whether they are found to be competent enough to regain custody of their children, a number of human rights activists, lawyers and pastors have argued that the Bodnariu case is essentially a part of a larger pattern displayed by the Barnevernet of targeting Migrant families.
In an interview last Monday with The Christian Post, Texas-based lawyer Peter Costea, the president of the Alliance for Romania's Families, explained that many migrant families feel that the Barnevernet is targeting them and removing their children to ensure that the children "grow up Norwegian."
Costea, who sent a letter to the Norwegian ambassador to Romania in December and also has access to court records, argued that the Norwegian government does not have the right to remove children from their parents simply on the allegation of spanking. He added that spanking is not listed as a violation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
At a protest held outside the Norwegian Embassy in Washington D.C. in January, Norwegian human rights lawyer Marius Reikeras and other supporters of the Bodnariu family claimed that there are thousands of families just like the Bodnariu's — normal, well-educated families that get in trouble with the Barnevernet over disciplinary issues.
Despite the claims that the Barnevernet is targeting migrant families from eastern European countries and other nations, Andreas Nordli, Norway's national director for Youth With a Mission, told CP that such a claim is not true and feels that the tendency for migrant and ethnic families to get in trouble with Barnevernet is simply because they are unaware of Norway's child abuse laws.
Nordli, who collaborated with the Barnevernet when he was a pastor of a church that had a number of migrant families, said his own experiences with the Barnevernet have been very good.
"I hear both in this specific case with the Romanian family and cases with Russian [families,] Lithuanian [families,] and [families] from Czech Republic that there have been accusations toward child protective services in Norway, but I haven't [seen] it myself," Nordli said. "Because we have strict laws against physically disciplining your kids, I think a lot of non-Norwegians coming here, they are not aware of the law. Because of that, that creates the problems, I think. Maybe even the child protection [agencies] in Norway are not good enough in explaining to non-Norwegians how our laws are set up."
Although some Bodnariu family supporters claim that it was the family's religious belief that "God punishes sin" that originally drew the concern of the principal and Barnevernet, Andreas Hegertun, the spokesman for the Norwegian Pentecostal Movement, explained that religious liberties of ethnic families in Norway are not strained in any way.
Hegertun added that families have the freedom to raise their children in accordance with their faith as long as they are not percieved to have violated the nation's laws.
"Every ethnic religious group may worship and raise their children according to their beliefs, as long as they don't violate Norwegian law," Hegertun told CP. "In practice this means as long as they don't use violence. I have never heard of anyone getting in trouble with the government for any other reason than violence, serious neglect or addictions. In this matter we, as churches, strongly agree with our government that violence toward children is not accepted."
"In fact, there has also been the opposite suspicion that the government may be tempted to look the other way in communities with other cultural values regarding violence toward children because they are scared of not being culturally sensitive — for instance in many Muslim communities," Hegertun continued. "I believe there are cultural differences in the sense that many cultures do practice more violence in their upbringing of children than we accept in Norway. For instance, I have myself seen this in Kenya where teachers hit children with sticks. I find it unacceptable both as a Christian and as a father."
Costea told CP last week that court records indicate that spankings are the only alleged [so-called] abuse against the Bodnariu parents. The only facts of the case that are available are the facts provided by the family, as the agency has to protect the privacy of the children while the case is still ongoing.
Despite the claim that the parents lost custody of their children for spanking them, Hegertun and Nordli find it surprising that the Barnevernet would remove the children just off of a simple spanking allegation.
"In Norway spanking and other types of corporal punishment is illegal. But this does not mean that all parents that practice these models of parenting have their children removed," Hegertun said. "A majority of the families that the Barnevernet are in contact with do not have their children removed. Most families receive parental courses and advice on how to change their parenting style so that they parent without using corporal punishment or spanking."
But as some parents and cultures believe that physical punishment is vital to the upbringing of their children, Hegertun admits that if parents feel they are not wrong to spank their children, then the Barnevernet could seek to remove children from their parental custody.
"If the parents see no wrong in using violence or do not want to change, the Barnevernet considers making a case to remove the child," Hegertun said. "Removing children from their parents is not easy. In Norway, the system is that the Barnevernet needs to make their case to a judge, the parents get an attorney, and then the judge makes the decision. This takes place in a courtroom and proof is submitted and witnesses on each side are called in. In my experience, the barrier to do this is high, but obviously not as high as in countries that accept violence toward children."