The Christian Legal Centre’s Roger Kiska comments on the latest judgment in the ECHR case of the Bodnariu family, who are challenging Norwegian child services for wrongly taking their children away.
According to Statistics Norway, 54, 592 children received care measures from child welfare services in Norway in 2019 alone. That represents nearly 3% of the children in Norway. Nearly 20% of those involved Norwegian-born children to immigrant parents. These statistics represent real families and real-life trauma for everyone involved.
In the fall of 2015, the five children of Ruth and Marius Bodnariu became part of these statistics when they were separated from their parents, their friends and school, and from each other into 3 different households, hours apart from each other. In fact, in many ways, the Bodnarius have become the very symbol of Norway’s staggering child welfare statistics.
This week, five years on from the horrible events of 2015/2016, which included being separated from their children and being forced to leave family, careers, friends and their home, the European Court of Human Rights has dismissed their challenge after four years of international litigation on the basis that the family had not availed themselves of possible domestic remedies for damages after the family was reunited and fled to Romania.
The decision is a blow to the family, who argued before the European Court of Human Rights that any further remedies in Norway were illusory at best. They would not risk further punishment and separation of the family by going back into the system that had so ill-treated them, especially after all of the international media attention the case had garnered. Asking them to go back into the proverbial lion’s den would have been cruel, and something Ruth and Marius Bodnariu would never put their children through.
The Bodnariu family
On paper, Ruth and Marius Bodnariu did everything right, making the ordeal they suffered all the more shocking.
By all accounts, Ruth and Marius are impressive people. Marius, who is of Romanian heritage, has an Engineering Degree in Applied Informatics with a Master’s Degree in Computer Networks. Ruth is a Pediatric Nurse specialising in Psychology for children and youth. They are educated, loving and responsible parents who, in 2015, had two daughters and three sons, the youngest being just three months old and still breast feeding.
From early in their marriage, Marius and Ruth decided that their “ultimate career” was to be parents and raise a family; to have children and invest in them. In 2005, when Ruth was pregnant with their first child, the couple left Romania to start a new life on a farm in Redal, on the west coast of Norway. Redal and its surrounding villages together consist of 200 families, and collectively form a distinct cultural region of Norway.
Shortly after their first child was born in 2006, Marius began working in Forde’s City Hall. Within one year he was put in charge of the IT department in all ten of the village schools. Following expansion, he became responsible for the entire school district covering 10 communities and 50 schools. In 2007, Ruth commenced employment in the paediatric ward of Forde Central Hospital.
Marius and Ruth raised their children in a loving, active and engaging environment. They involved their children in a wide range of activities including fishing, taking care of animals, woodworking, drawing, painting, and music.
Character and fitness
The Bodnarius were an incredibly tight knit family. Ruth’s parents lived in a neighbouring house and were very much a part of the children’s lives. All of the people interviewed by child welfare officials and the police, including colleagues, neighbours and the extended family had nothing but praise for the family.
Of the 122 medical visits the children collectively underwent from their birth until their being taken into custody, not once was there ever an inference that the children were anything but deeply loved and cared for. Nor did tests following the children’s being taken into care provide any evidence of abuse.
Child welfare services intervene
On 30 September 2015, the headteacher at the school where several of the Bodnariu children attended sent a letter to the Department of Culture which contained the written notes of two conversations had by the school with Ruth and Marius’ daughters. The notes reflected that the girls mentioned receiving occasional spankings at home. This letter was forwarded by the Department of Culture to the Barnevernet (Child Welfare Services) on 8 October. After receiving the letter, the Barnevernet contacted the school headteacher to request a detailed report of the complaint. The headteacher highlighted the family’s strong Christian beliefs and suggested that this may retard the children’s development.
Nevertheless, the headteacher believed Ruth and Marius to be good and loving parents. So much so, that when Child Welfare Services attempted to take the Bodnarius’ two daughters from the school yard, she refused them entry onto the school property and would not identify who the children were.
Guilty until proven innocent
Nonetheless, the children were taken that day without prior notification of the family and questioned without any family member, legal representative or anyone they at least could trust being present on the parent’s behalf. The children, just wanting to go home, gave their interrogators the information they thought they wanted to hear. This pattern continued. During a police interrogation, one of the children even asked in her frustration what else did they want her to make up.
As a result of the interviews, the children, including their youngest who was still being breastfed, were taken from them. Norwegian officials continued to repeat the mantra that the children must be believed, even when much of what was said was contradictory or demonstrably false.
In the investigation notes obtained by the family at trial during discovery, the lead investigator even expresses her own doubts that the children are making up the allegations but then suggests that they must nonetheless be true because a Christian upbringing is inherently violent.
Religious illiteracy and cultural intolerance
The Bodnarius’ casefile is replete with evidence of animus and negative pre-conceptions towards the family. One social worker report goes so far as to describe how Mr Bodnariu was praying at a supervised meeting with his son, and made the exclamation: “After a while he (the father) puts himself on his knees and his body (upper part) over the sofa, he might pray!” The children were also never taken to church once while in foster care. They were forbidden from speaking Romanian with each other, and Marius was required to sign a protocol agreeing not to speak Romanian with the children as a condition of being able to have supervised visits with the family.
After seven months of separation, the family was finally reunited following court cases in Norway. For their own safety, and fearing further action by Norwegian officials because of the family’s growing grassroots popularity in Norway and internationally, the family fled their home in Norway to relocate in Romania.
The family, working with international lawyer Paul Susman, who coordinated the legal efforts of the case from its beginnings, contacted the Christian Legal Centre for assistance with proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights. Together, over the course of the last four years, we took up their cause before the highest human rights court in Europe. So strong was the international support for the family that the governments of Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic all intervened in the case on the family’s behalf.
Throughout this entire ordeal the family has remained true to their faith and to each other. Theirs was a case worth fighting. The Bodnarius, in all of their humility, are clear that they took this case forward for the goal of helping other families in Norway going through the same thing.
For my part, I can only say what an honour it was to represent and to get to know this amazing family. My prayer is that this case and all the attention it has attracted, having happened on the grandest legal stage of them all, will finally motivate Norway to take the necessary measures to prevent similar nightmares happening to other families. The time for change is now.