Today (10 September 2019), the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights found that Norway violated the fundamental right to family life through the actions of its child welfare services. Strand Lobben v. Norway was one of several cases appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in which parents complained that Norwegian authorities unlawfully removed their children from their care. In Strand Lobben, a three-week-old child was taken away from his mother in 2008 based on doubts about her parenting abilities after she had requested support. The child was placed in foster care and his mother was ultimately allowed only eight hours of contact per year with her son. Eventually, all visitation rights were denied, the mother’s parental rights were removed, and the child was put up for adoption.

In a previous ruling, the Fifth Section of the European Court of Human Rights had found no violation of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights which protects the right to family life. However in October 2018, the Grand Chamber, the highest level of the European Court of Human Rights, agreed to review the case. ADF International intervened before the Grand Chamber as a Third Party arguing for greater respect for parental rights in Norway and highlighting fundamental issues with child protection services in Norway.

“Removing children from their families should always be considered a last resort. This is one of a number of cases in which the Norwegian authorities failed to prioritize the reunification of families. We are pleased to see a judgment from the Court that protects parental rights and hope it will be a wake-up call for the Norwegian authorities,” said Laurence Wilkinson, Legal Counsel for ADF International.

Ruling protects parental rights

A concurring opinion by six judges stated, “the authorities in the present case failed from the outset to pursue the aim of reuniting the child with his mother, but rather immediately envisaged that he would grow up in the foster home. This underlying assumption runs like a thread through all stages of the proceedings, starting with the care order.”

“Human rights advocates have been highlighting the destructive practices of the Barnevernet for years. This ruling is a step in the right direction for parental rights in Norway and beyond. Even a positive judgment cannot make up the precious ten years this family has lost at the hands of the Norwegian state,” said Grégory Thuan Dit Dieudonne, lead counsel for Mrs Strand Lobben.

Norway’s poor track record

Prompted by the case of the Bodnariu family, a 2018 report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) into the practices of the Norwegian child welfare agency, Barnevernet, revealed troubling insights. For example, it showed a high frequency of “emergency” interventions by the agency. The reasoning behind these interventions were of particular concern, as well as the exceptionally short visitation times which the authorities usually granted.

“The primary purpose of child welfare agencies is to support families. The investigation into Norway showed that without effective safeguards, child welfare agencies can cause long-term damage to families and undermine the prior right that parents have to raise their children. Norway must respect the right of parents to raise their children and intervene only when there is evidence of a serious breach of the parents’ duties. We hope this judgment will ensure that Norway fully respects its obligation to uphold parental rights under international law,” said Robert Clarke Director of European Advocacy for ADF International.