European court refuses to address challenge of Norwegian child services17 December 2020 Issued by: Christian Legal Centre
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) today dismissed a nearly four-year long challenge of Norway’s child services agency for having taken a Christian family’s five children, including a three-month old baby, into care without fully investigating their concerns about abuse in the family.
The Bodnariu family brought a case against the Norwegian government arguing that the basis of the removal of the children was related to the lead social care worker’s prejudices against the family’s Pentecostal faith and for failing to properly investigate the matter before taking steps to separate the family.
After the family were reunited the family fled Norway, fearing retaliation by Norwegian child services because of the international grassroots support the family was receiving and the subsequent negative media portrayal of Norway’s child care system, and settled in Romania.
Handing down the decision, the ECHR argued that the family had possibilities within Norway to challenge the takings after family reunification before bringing the case to the European Court. It opined that it is a “fundamental feature of the machinery of protection established by the Convention that it is subsidiary to the national systems safeguarding human rights.”
During proceedings however, the Bodnarius had argued that any remaining domestic remedies were illusory, and that it would be cruel to require the family to return to the system that had so traumatised them. The family was further concerned that officials would take further steps to damage the family because of the media attention surrounding the case.
In its decision, the ECHR also noted that the Slovakian Government, one of three intervening governments on behalf of the family, argued that the systematic character of the substantive issue at stake in the instant case could be taken into account in the Court’s examination of whether relevant remedies had been exhausted.
The right to private family life
Supported by the Christian Legal Centre, the case claimed that the Norwegian child protection agency, known as the Barnevernet, violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to private family life. The claim further alleged violations of the family’s freedom of religion under Article 9 of the Convention.
The case sought to reinforce the European Court’s position that it is a fundamental right for parents and children to have mutual enjoyment of each other’s company and that public authorities are forbidden from drawing negative inferences about a family’s parenting skills because of their religious convictions.
Responding to the outcome, the father of the family, Marius Bodnariu, 41, said: “Despite the result, we do not regret bringing this case to the European Court. Our family’s suffering has raised international attention to the abuses of family life happening on a daily basis in Norway because of a broken child welfare system.
“We are nonetheless disappointed with the outcome. We would have never risked the possibility of further separation of our family by seeking damages within the system that so abused our rights. This case was never about money damages. It was about righting the wrong that was done to us.”
They took the baby away
The lives of IT expert Marius Bodnariu and his wife, Ruth, a paediatric nurse, who are Pentecostal Christians, were torn apart in November 2015 when their two eldest daughters failed to return home from school.
Instead of the school bus, two black cars pulled up outside of their family home. A child protection official got out and told Ruth that their two daughters were in the other car and would be taken into emergency state care and that they needed to take their two sons as well.
The other car would take Ruth to the police station for interrogation.
The same afternoon while Marius was at work, he was visited by two police officers who said that he was being arrested for child abuse.
Marius was searched, charged and taken to the police station where he was advised against using a lawyer and interpreter.
He was then interrogated for hours and pressured into admitting using mild physical force to discipline his children for bad behaviour in line with commonly accepted Biblical beliefs.
Marius was then forced to sign a document with charges stating that he treated all his children in the same way. Deeply shocked and traumatised, he was then allowed to go home.
The following day, the two black cars came to their house again. The parents assumed their children would be inside and that it had all been a terrible mistake, but instead four police officers and two social workers got out.
This time they said they had come to take their three-month-old baby away.
The children were then split between three different sets of emergency foster parents, leaving Marius and Ruth with an eight hour round trip to see them at supervised meetings.
Concerns over Christian upbringing
Initially, Barnevernet claimed that the children were taken due to allegations of corporal punishment/smacking, which is illegal in Norway. However, further investigation revealed that a motivating factor behind the removal of the Bodnariu children was that authorities in the family’s community felt that the family’s Christian beliefs could “handicap the children’s development”.
The shocking move was initiated by the Barnevernet after they received notification from the headteacher of the school attended by the Bodnarius’ two daughters of concern that the children are possibly being smacked. The headteacher was so adamant about how disproportionately the Barnevernet had reacted that she would not even let them onto school property to see the children nor would she identify who the children were.
The case was filled with intrigues such as the lead investigator denying that she knew Ruth Bodnariu, even though they went to school together and had pictures taken together. The notes of the same investigator, even when questioning whether the veracity of the allegations had any merit, wrote to herself that they must be true because a Biblical upbringing is inherently violent.
The children, who were questioned without any parental supervision or representation of their own, were questioned rigorously, with one of the children asking authorities what else they wanted her to make up.
Evidence was presented that the children collectively went for medical check-ups on no less than 122 separate occasions without any concerns about abuse ever being expressed by the staff who attended the children. Nor did any of the checks done once the children were in care evidence any prior physical harm.
Fled to Romania
The Bodnarius were told that a plan would be put in place to reunite the family but were soon told that the Barnevernet was filing a case for their children’s permanent removal.
Months of trauma followed at the hands of Barnevernet, including concerns even being raised about Marius praying and allegations that they had radically indoctrinated their children with their Christian beliefs. Moreover, Marius was forced to sign a protocol agreeing not to speak Romanian with his children during supervised visits.
After seven months of separation, in June 2016 a settlement was finally reached that allowed the family to be re-united.
Living in fear, Marius and Ruth immediately left their family, house, friends, lucrative jobs, and fled with their children back to Romania.
After seeking legal support, when the story broke it sparked international outrage and protests across four continents and raised serious questions about Norway’s child protection practices.
The Barnevernet was accused of essentially ‘kidnapping’ the children on behalf of the Norwegian state and using the allegation of corporal punishment as a precursor to religious discrimination.
The case is not an isolated one in a Norwegian society that is becoming more and more aligned with radical atheism.
Many other Norwegian families cite similar treatment from the country’s child protection authorities and a number of similar child protection cases are ongoing.
Disappointed but not beaten
Responding to the outcome, Marius Bodnariu said: “Despite what happened to our family, we know that God is good and we are grateful for our beautiful family, which is all the stronger because of what happened to us.”
“The worldwide attention this case has garnered has shone a bright light on Norway’s child welfare services. I pray that no other family in Norway will ever again go through what we have.
“Our story must serve as a warning that upholding religious freedom and the legal right of parents to bring up their children in line with their beliefs is fundamental and crucial for any democratic society.
“The support we have received from around the world has been deeply humbling and my family and I would like to thank everyone for standing with us.”
It could happen to any family
Andrea Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which has provided legal support to the Bodnarius throughout the case, said: “This case demonstrates the very real and growing hostility devout Christians families are having in raising their children. If this nightmare could happen to the Bodnarius, it could have to any of our families.
“We are disappointed that the European Court would not substantively address the injustice that happened to this wonderful and loving family after so many years of hard-fought litigation.
“Nonetheless, my prayer is that this case will be much more than just a cautionary tale; that it will in fact lead to real change in the way childcare issues are dealt with in Norway and across Europe.”