Parent vs State: A Clash of Cultures

The real-life stories of custody battles of Indians living abroad, on which 'Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway' was based, show a cultural gap that calls for Indian embassies to counsel citizens going abroad

'Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway' promotional poster (photo courtesy IMDb)
'Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway' promotional poster (photo courtesy IMDb)

Lekha Rattanani

The box office returns in India for Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway have not been enthusing, but it is the most-watched South Asian film in Norway and has articulated the tussle of mostly immigrant parents against childcare services in Nordic and European countries. The Norwegian embassy in India has dismissed the film, based on the 2022 book The Journey of a Mother by Sagarika Chakraborty, as a ‘fictional representation’ of the case that was resolved a decade ago in cooperation with Indian authorities.

When the film, recounting an immigrant Indian mother’s struggle to win back the custody of her children from the Norwegian foster care system, was released last month, the Norwegian embassy rushed to underline that children are placed in alternative care only if they are subjected to ‘neglect, violence or other forms of abuse’.

Regardless of this dismissal, the film has drawn attention to the many custody battles that are going on worldwide between parents and childcare services. One of them is the current confrontation between the Berlin Child Protection Services and the Shah family, requiring the intervention of international diplomats to resolve.

India again felt compelled to take up this second child custody case, this time with Germany in December 2022, when external affairs minister S. Jaishankar raised the issue with his counterpart Annalena Baerbock, minister for foreign affairs on the other side. “We have concerns that the child should be in her linguistic, religious, cultural and social environment. This is her right,” said Jaishankar at a joint media briefing. “Our embassy is pursuing the matter with the German authorities, but it was also a subject which I had brought up with the minister,” he added.

Cultural differences in raising children constitute one of the reasons for various states stepping into the homes of mostly foreign nationals and taking away children from diasporic families. It is a matter that has again been raised in the Shah vs Germany case.

“The German child services are completely insensitive to the baby’s cultural and religious identity, insisting on a meat diet for her though she comes from an observant Jain family,” says an online petition, called ‘Save Ariha’, begun by the child’s parents.

Ariha Shah is a little over the age of two. Brought into the system at seven months, the toddler has spent most of her time in the care of Berlin child services, which last month filed a civil custody case to terminate the parental rights of Dhara and Bhavesh Shah, her parents. Ariha was taken away on suspicion of sexual abuse, following what the family says is an accidental injury while in her paternal grandmother’s care. The child was referred to doctors, who in turn called in child services.

The worried parents have said in the online petition that the lawsuit could go on for two or three years, giving child services the advantage of the ‘continuity principle’ in Germany, a legal provision, which holds that a child who has spent a significant time with the state-appointed carer is considered to be settled in that place and should not be shifted back to the parents, even if they are found to be fit.

Figures from Destatis (Statistisches Bundesamt), the German national statistics agency, show that 77,645 children and young people were in state care in 2015–16. In contemporary Germany, with its population of over 83 million, there are 50,364 children and young people living in family foster care. Norway has as many as 12,000 children living in state and foster care, a rather high number for a population of not more than 5.5 million. This draws from concerns that place the rights of the child above all else.

Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Estonia and Portugal offer the best family-friendly policies among 31 rich countries according to a new Unicef report, based on their national family-friendly policies. The Unicef report focuses on two key policies: childcare leave for parents and the early childhood education and care of preschool children. It reviews these policies in the 41 high- and middle-income countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the European Union.

Among the most family-friendly countries, Norway in 1981 was the first to appoint a children’s ombudsman to protect the rights of the child. Yet Norway also faces a disproportionately high number of child welfare cases and a number of them, fiercely contested by parents, have found their way before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The ECHR has deemed as central to these cases Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which covers the ‘right to respect for private and family life’. In recent years, the ECHR has accepted for hearing 39 cases involving the Norwegian Child Welfare Services.

Of the nine cases that the ECHR has ruled on, a violation of the right to family life has been found in seven cases. A total of 52 judgments have been passed against Norway. These high numbers show the country’s failure to safeguard the right to family life in child welfare cases, it may be argued.

According to the BBC, as the Norwegian media began investigating a story it has ignored, it has been found that children with a foreign mother are four times more likely than other children in Norway to be forcibly taken from their families. For instance, a Norwegian–Chinese couple have had their baby taken away with questions over parenting, which include the time the child spent with her Chinese maternal grandmother after birth, a common practice in Asian countries.

Critics say Barnevernet, the Norwegian child welfare agency, is too quick to remove the children of immigrants. In the 2011 removal of two children from their Czech parents due to allegations of sexual abuse, the parents were eventually exonerated but the state refused to return the children and has now terminated their parental rights. The workings of child welfare in Norway prompted strong criticism from former Czech president Milos Zeman. Poland and Romania have also voiced disapproval in cases involving their nationals.

In the old days, a raised hand or stern words were used to settle tantrums and boisterous behaviour. Today that kind of solution may place the child in state custody in some countries where the rights of the child are clearly defined and fiercely protected. Slip-ups or what is seen as violence could result in the state intervening in raising your children. There are many cases of couples finding that the ways in which they were brought up in their home countries and the mix of tradition, culture, religion and language woven into their parenting methods may not meet a different set of standards.

In cases of families on work stints abroad, this sort of conflict often seems to escalate to the level of international diplomacy, calling for the intervention of national governments to argue the child’s socio-cultural rights.

Perhaps for diasporic Indians, it may help if the government intervened by providing counselling and support through Indian embassies well before parenting runs into trouble. A kind of family ombudsman in embassies could be a guide and referral point for Indian parents in order to prevent visits from child welfare services that may not end well.

LEKHA RATTANANI is the managing editor of The Billion Press. Syndicate: The Billion Press

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