This article was produced and financed by Oslo Metropolitan University

Concerns may involve suspicions of physical abuse by the other parent. (Photo: Colourbox)

Child welfare service is reluctant to intervene in high-conflict cases

The Norwegian Child Welfare Service does not take cases involving suspected child abuse seriously enough in high-conflict cases between the parents, according to researchers.

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Oslo Metropolitan University

Oslo Metropolitan University is a state university in Oslo and Akershus in Norway.

How should the Child Welfare Service respond in cases where the mother or father is concerned about the child's care provision while living with the other parent? Concerns may involve suspicions of physical abuse, substance abuse, violence or other deficit of parental care.

"Traditonally, such conflicts are not viewed as a matter for the Child Welfare Service. Concerned parents are often referred to the family welfare office or the courts," says PhD candidate Kari Sjøhelle Jevne, who has interviewed 26 employees in the municipal Child Welfare Service and parents as part of her research into high-conflict cases in the Child Welfare Service.

She believes the Child Welfare Service must lower the threshold for dealing with high-conflict cases.

Cannot deny right of access

The Child Welfare Service in Norway cannot decide how or where children should live. These matters are regulated by the Act relating to Children and Parents, not the Act relating to Child Welfare Services.

PhD candiate at HiOA Kari Sjøhelle Jevne. (Photo: HiOA)

At the same time, the Child Welfare Service must make arrangements that are in the child's best interests and must intervene when there are concerns about a child's care provision.

"In this way the Child Welfare Service often ends up operating in a legal grey zone," says Jevne.

New law, new signals

A new law gives the Child Welfare Service a more decisive role in high-conflict cases like these.  The courts may order the Child Welfare Service to contribute with so-called protected supervision so that the child and the parent with access rights are monitored throughout the access period.

"The new law sends a clear signal that these high-conflict cases are a matter for the Child Welfare Service," says Jevne.

The number of high-conflict cases will only increase in the coming years," says Jevne, and the Child Welfare Service will have to define how it will deal with them. According to research, child welfare case officers find these cases extremely difficult.

Are the concerns legitimate?

The dilemma the Child Welfare Service faces is having to assess the legitimacy of the the concerns of one parent about the care being provided by the other. When parents live apart, it is easier to interpret such concerns as groundless accusations that arise when parents are fighting over a child.

"It's not right to say that those concerns are groundless. Research shows that these concerns are perceived as genuine by those who report them," says Jevne.

Must investigate the accusations

How should the Child Welfare Service assess the information they are given by one of the parents?

They must investigate accusations and not simply dismiss them as groundless," says the researcher.

"The Child Welfare Service must take them seriously and make professional judgements based on their professional competence," says Jevne.

Disagreement with the courts

The Child Welfare Service does not have the authority to change access rights; it must rely on the courts to do so. It may only conduct investigations, and only then if the court agrees with its assessment – which is often not the case.

"There are numerous examples of a court reaching the opposite conclusion to that of the Child Welfare Service," says Jevne, and cites one example which is far from exceptional:

The mother suspects the father of sexually abusing the child. The Child Welfare Service investigates, and recommends that the court terminate the father's right of access to the child. The mother wins the case. The father appeals and wins the appeal. The child is moved to  live with the father. A new municipal Child Welfare Service takes over the case because the child has moved to live with the father, who lives in another municipality. The new Child Welfare Service office must familiarise itself with the case.

The Child Welfare Service can do more

"Parental concerns have to do with the quality of care provided by the other parent," says Jevne.

She says that if the Child Welfare Service investigates whether the quality of care-giving is good enough or not, it can either help allay concerns or support parents in efforts to have living or access arrangements changed.

"There is room for manoeurvre here which the Child Welfare Service does not take advantage of," says Jevne, who believes that the threshold for dealing with this type of case should be lowered.

"Even if it turns out that a concern is less serious than first assumed, it can nevertheless reduce the level of conflict between the parents."

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