Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway: a film for parents with infants

The Rani Mukherjee starrer, releasing on March 17, reflects plight of an Indian family in Norway but Indians are not the only ones at the receiving end of child protection laws and ‘cultural biases’

Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway: a film for parents with infants

Suranya Aiyar

The trailer of Mrs Chatterjee vs Norway was released last month to a resounding public response. The film is based on the true story of the Bhattacharyas, a young Bengali family in Norway, whose children were brutally snatched by Norwegian Child Services, known as Barnevernet, about ten years ago. The family, especially the mother, Sagarika, fought back valiantly, and managed against all odds to win back her children.

The case was brought to national attention by the then Rajya Sabha MP, Brinda Karat. The summary way in which Sagarika’s children had been removed shocked lawyers and mothers in India. There was no allegation of extreme violence or incest. There appeared to be no reason for placing the children in permanent foster care, without allowing parents even visiting right. The videos and photos of the children showed them to be clean, well-fed and well-dressed. The baby girl was thriving as an exclusively breast-fed infant.

The Indian Government intervened only after massive public protests, and eventually the children were returned to Sagarika. The most disturbing thing about the case was not the racist attitudes she encountered from Barnevernet, or even the chilling practices of Barnevernet, such as turning on video cameras to record her whenever she was emotionally overcome at the agonising separation from her children. The most shocking thing about this case was that Sagarika never did anything bad to her child – not even “a slap” – as is often presumed based on rules against corporeal punishment in several Western countries.

After Sagarika returned from Norway, we obtained all the documents of the case from Barnevernet. There is no report in them of even the most minimal physical encounter between Sagarika and her children – not even a light slap. The entire case was built on culturally-biased interpretation of her normal everyday interactions with the children.

Since then, we have been contacted by many Indian families abroad with children ‘taken’ from them. They call from all over the world - the USA, the UK, Norway, Sweden, Germany and Australia. In each case the family was found to be completely innocent – just like Sagarika. But they are able to prove this only when given access to lawyers, activists, interpreters and other experts who can help mount a defence.

The types of families targeted by these foreign child services agencies are in no position to fight back if left to fend for themselves. Typically, they are newly arrived immigrants from a lower middle- or working class- background. They have no friends or family in the new country. Their English is very weak. They do not know the local language in non-English-speaking countries. Above all, the children are below the age of two, and are unable to speak for themselves.

In almost every case we found the father was in the IT Industry and all the family members are Indian citizens. The big Indian IT corporations that are profiting from sending these dynamic young men abroad make no provision to help them when trapped by Child Services.


In the USA, many or most of the cases started when parents took their children to hospital with head injuries or bone fractures. The parents were immediately put under suspicion of abuse for “Shaken Baby Syndrome”.

Shaken Baby Syndrome is a contested medical theory that says that certain types of injuries in babies can only be caused deliberately, and not by accident. Typically, the babies were injured when they rolled off a bed or slipped while bathing them or while being lifted after an oil massage. Several medical experts also believe cases of Shaken Baby Syndrome are caused by short falls and similar accidents. However, if the parents are not able to successfully prove it, they can lose their babies for ever.

The US system does allow parents to present a robust defence with medical and forensic experts. But in Europe and the UK, child protection laws have been progressively skewed against the parents to the point where it is virtually impossible to win in court. Instead of being treated as a party in an adversarial process, the Child Services are treated by the judges as neutral experts.

In the UK, Social Services can remove a child simply by claiming that it is at “risk” at parental home based on the parent’s so-called aggressive personality – an evaluation that can be based purely on the Social Services’ own fraught interactions with parents who are often angered by the unwarranted intrusion into their homes.

In one tragic case involving a Tamil Muslim family in Birmingham, Social Services removed the children when the father insisted on welfare benefits after losing his job. The Local Authority had to concede the benefits, as that is what the law provided. But the father was accused of causing stress to his children by the family’s financial straits. The father was an undocumented migrant and Social Services accused him of “using” his children to get nationalised. Based on these flimsy grounds, the children were permanently removed. The parents have not even been allowed to see the children or even to speak to them over the phone - for the last eight years.

In Northern European countries like Norway, the trigger for child protection cases can be anything from a toddler’s fussiness in playschool (as happened in Sagarika’s case) to a spiteful neighbour’s complaint. Once the case is started, all decisions hinge on psychological assessments of the parents and the children.

In Norway, based on Sagarika’s 2-year-old son’s perceived behavioural issues, care workers concluded that the mother must be “cold”. Another favourite peg on which Child Services hang families in Norway and Germany is the so-called “attachment theory” where the relationship between the child and parents is judged on how they interact with each other. Scolding your child in a loud voice is considered terrible by Norwegians, but they give no weight to the fact that the child has a stable home with earning parents.

Responding emotionally in countries where people are not very expressive, is taken as a sign of instability. Feeding children by hand or reciting mantras to them is not seen as an expression of love by European psychologists.

In the case of babies who are not yet verbal, there is really very little for a psychologist to go on. So, they have invented indicators of attachment disorder that beggar belief. For instance, the Norwegian care workers assessed that Sagarika’s then 3-month -old baby was not attached to her because the baby would look at the care workers and not at her when they entered the room.

In Germany, in a case still underway, the psychologist said that the 2-year-old baby has “stranger attachment disorder” because though she has been separated from her parents for over a year, she still cries when it is time to leave them after visitations, but does not have a same reaction to the foster parents. These Western child protection systems are thus built on little more than dodgy psychology.

Our government needs to take a strong line against the cultural bias of Western child services agencies. Under the Vienna Convention, the receiving country is obliged to inform the embassy of the sending country when a child is removed from parental custody. However, this rule is never followed in practice. Indian embassies abroad have no information for families trapped in child services proceedings. They do not even have a list of child protection lawyers.

It is time for the Government to formulate a policy for these families. Our embassies need to be better informed as to the rights available to Indians and their children in this situation. Most urgently, the Government should put in place arrangements with these countries that enable the taken children to be immediately repatriated to extended family in India.

Suranya Aiyar is a lawyer who helps pro bono families caught up in foreign child services proceedings.

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