'A big state versus a poor family': Canadian's son forcibly removed in Norway
Terese and Leif Kristiansen and their son Kai are seen in this undated handout photo. Kristiansen, a Canadian mother living in Norway, says she is living a nightmare after child welfare authorities came into her home and took away her 12-year-old son over what she calls 'a misunderstanding.' (Kristiansen family)
A Canadian mother living in Norway says she is living a nightmare after child welfare authorities came into her home and took away her 12-year-old son over what she calls “a misunderstanding.”
Terese and Leif Kristiansen posted a video to Facebook last Thursday that shows her crying and calling for help while police and social workers chase after their son, Kai, outside the family apartment in As, Norway.
As authorities tackle her son in the snow, a frantic Terese can be heard yelling: "Look what you’re doing. You leave him alone! He had done nothing. Can somebody please help us!”
The video had more than 640,000 views and was shared close to 7,000 times before being removed.
Speaking to CTVNews.ca by telephone from her home in As, Kristiansen explained that after weeks of telling Barnevernet, Norway's child protection agency, that she wanted to homeschool her son because he was being bullied at school, authorities arrived on her doorstep with an emergency order to remove Kai from the home and place him in foster care.
Just a few minutes before Kristiansen turned on her phone to record the scene, her son had locked himself in a bedroom and slipped out the window.
“He ran away because he didn’t want to go with anybody. When he heard me on the deck, he was running back to his family,” she said, between sobs as she recalled the day.
Kristiansen says she hasn’t seen her son since and has only spoken to him by phone once, on the night he was taken. She's not even clear on where he is, only that it’s a building 60 kilometres away. With no means of transport, and unable to go see their son, she and her husband Leif are desperate to know how he is.
“He’s a sensitive boy who’s never been away from us,” she said.
Kristiansen says her son is smart, outgoing and well-liked in their neighbourhood but had been repeatedly bullied at school since the fall. When boys in his school began telling him before the Christmas holiday that they were going to kill him, Kristiansen and her husband decided to pull their son from the school on Jan. 3.
She says they informed the school and filled out paperwork and wanted her son to change schools, but she says the school called in Barnevernet, the child welfare agency.
“We go to meetings but then they go to the next level. So there was a loss of trust and faith. I think it’s just a big misunderstanding,” she said.
'This would never happen in Canada'
Homeschooling is legal in Norway, but Kristiansen says Barnevernet officials told her family they were concerned their son would not receive “socializing” while being homeschooled.
“We were only temporarily homeschooling until we agreed to a good school to transfer to. It wasn’t meant to be long-term homeschooling at all,” Kristiansen said.
While she admits the family has been struggling financially since arriving in Norway almost two years ago, Kristiansen says her son is well-fed, and there are no issues of child abuse, or alcohol or drug issues that would provoke child welfare authorities to intervene.
“This would never happen in Canada,” she insists, adding that before she arrived in Norway, she thought the country was one of the best places in the world to live.
Lawyer Mike Donnelly confirms that Norwegian authorities have not alleged that Kai is facing any neglect or abuse.
Donnelly is the director of global outreach at a U.S.-based group called the Home School Legal Defense Association, which provides legal assistance to families who homeschool. He has reviewed the correspondence sent by Norwegian child welfare authorities to the family and says the sole reason they have cited for removing Kai from his home is because he was not in school.
He says Kristiansen let the school and authorities know of their decision to educate their son at home.
“And then they did this out of the blue. They were never warned. They were never told, ‘If you don’t put your child back in school, we’re taking custody.’ They were given no warning,” he told CTVNews.ca.
Controversial child welfare service
Donnelly notes many families have raised complaints about Barnevernet’s methods, alleging the ministry removed their children from their care without adequate reason.
In one high-profile case that Donnelly worked on in 2015, the five children of a Romanian-American family were taken away from their parents over concerns about spanking in the home. After organized protests in several European cities, the family was reunited after nine months of separation.
Another case in 2015 involved two children of a Lithuanian-born mother who were taken away by authorities over what she said were unfounded allegations of abuse.
In 2012, Czech President Miloš Zeman compared Norway’s foster care system to the Nazi program to breed Aryans, after two Czech boys were taken away from a couple over fears about abuse.
According to The Associated Press, children born abroad are more than three times as likely to be removed from their homes as native Norwegians and placed into foster care.
Henrik Nielsen, a media spokesperson for Norway’s Child, Youth and Family directorate, says while he has seen the Facebook video of Kai’s removal, he cannot comment on the case.
But in general, he says the standard for an order for the removal of a child from a family is high, just as it is in other Western countries. There needs to be an immediate concern for the welfare of the child in order for authorities to remove the child.
“The child welfare services don’t act unless there’s reason, unless there’s a concern about the family,” he said by phone, adding the Facebook video presents “only one side of this story.”
Kristiansen says her interactions with Barnevarnet began the day her family arrived in Norway. After years of living in Newfoundland, where Kai was born, the family decided to move to her husband’s native Norway to find work and to be closer to Leif’s family.
“We came here with nothing. And we met Barnevarnet the first day we arrived. They greeted us along with social services. And they haven’t left our side since,” she said.
She says social services workers told them they were expected to have jobs lined up before their arrival. The family didn’t, and Leif’s attempts to begin an after-school activity and handball school in their town of As (pronounced “Oss”) has not worked out as they had hoped.
Big state vs. poor family?
She says authorities have questioned her residency status and whether she is legally allowed to work to support her son. She feels the family’s low income is playing a role in why Barnevernet has stepped in.
“It’s a case of a big state versus a poor family,” she said.
The family has been in touch with the Canadian embassy, but she says they have told her there is little they can do but to offer the family support.
The Home School Legal Defense Association says it will be “standing with the Kristiansen family,” providing legal counsel if they choose to take their case to European Court of Human Rights. HSLDA has also begun a petition drive.
Kristiansen regrets not seeking legal help earlier but she says the family now has a lawyer in Oslo to help them.
At the moment, she and her husband are permitted only one 2-hour supervised visit per week with their son. The family now faces several court appearances and further meetings with authorities, where they will plead their case to have their son returned to their home – a day Kristiansen tearfully longs for.
“We love our son dearly. He’s always come first. He’s our only child,” she said. “…We’re a close family. We’re all about family.”