They took our four children… then they came back for the baby

Marius and Ruth

The case of a young couple in Norway whose five children were taken away by the state has fuelled mounting concern within the country and abroad over its child protection practices. Protesters around the world – and leading Norwegian professionals – say social workers are often too quick to separate children from their families, with too little justification, particularly when parents are immigrants.

Ruth and Marius’s life was torn apart without warning one Monday afternoon last November when two black cars approached the farm where they live in a remote Norwegian valley.

Their two little boys, aged five and two, and their three-month-old baby son, were in their big, bright, modern living room overlooking the steel-grey fjord.

Ruth was waiting as usual for the school bus that would bring back their two daughters, aged eight and 10.

But that Monday, it never came. Instead, Ruth saw the two unknown cars. One continued along the main road; the other turned up the farm track – and a woman from the local child protection service knocked at the door.

She told Ruth to come to the police station for interrogation.

The woman said the other black car had taken Ruth’s two daughters away, into emergency state care. And she told Ruth to hand over her two older sons to be taken away, too.

The following day, two black cars appeared again. The couple assumed it had all been a terrible mistake and the children had been brought back.

But they were wrong. Four policemen got out. And took the baby.

Media captionRuth and Marius describe how their children were taken away over the course of two days

Those events have triggered a worldwide protest campaign, online and on the streets.

Thousands of people have joined demonstrations in support of Ruth and Marius in a series of countries across four continents. The Norwegian child protection service, known as Barnevernet, has been accused by protesters of “kidnapping” children – in this and many other cases.

But Ruth and Marius’s story isn’t as simple as some campaigners imply.

They were suspected of administering corporal punishment, and in Norway, that’s completely illegal.

Sitting in their living room, surrounded by long-unused toys, Ruth, a paediatric nurse, whose family has lived in the valley for generations, and Marius, a computer expert originally from Romania, are close to tears as they talk about what happened.

Ruth says they did spank the children. But she adds: “Not every time when they do something bad, more occasionally.”

“They didn’t find any physical marks or anything like that when they had medical examination on them, they were, are, all fine,” she says. “But the law in Norway, it is very clear until the smallest detail, it’s not allowed of any physical correction, and we have never been aware that it was this strict.”

Norway: Parents against the state

A lawyer for the couple wouldn’t let me ask Ruth and Marius more detailed questions, because they’re still under investigation.

And it’s impossible to find out the authorities’ side of the story, because the child protection service won’t discuss individual cases, to protect children’s privacy.

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