What does Gunnar Toresen know about children?: Suranya Aiyar
Guest post by SURANYA AIYAR
Much has been made of the differences between Indian and western parenting in the wake of the removal of two small children from their Indian family in Norway by the Norwegian Child Welfare Service. But there is something more invidious than racism at work here?
The children were two and a half and four months old at the time of their removal to foster care. Observe any mother with children, babies rather, of this age, and you will see that the mother is the centre of a small child’s world. For a young breast-fed infant of the age of four months, as was Aishwarya, the mother is almost her entire world. That is how infants and toddlers experience the world. So let us, first and foremost bring to centre stage this very un-adult, unscientific, but immutable truth of a baby’s reality before we start to speak of its rights.
Let us also make a distinction between adults and babies. Babyhood has its own unique set of needs – physical and emotional; its own personality, quite separate from adult needs and perceptions. You cannot apply adult co-ordinates of well-being to an infant or young child.
Take what has happened in this case. In its attempts to re-assure those concerned, the Child Welfare Services and the Norwegian Embassy in India have said that the children are being “well taken care of” and, have been eager to clarify that the Norwegian foster family is being advised of “Indian food culture”. Food? Is that the measure of a child’s welfare for the Norwegian Child Welfare Service? Their complete disconnection from the world of a young child is demonstrated by the things they do not say in the attempt to reassure us: what is being done to make the toddler Abhigyan feel secure, faced with the sudden, incomprehensible absence of his mother and father? What about Abhigyan’s feelings at suddenly being surrounded by people speaking only in Norwegian, of which he does not understand a word? What about how he felt seeing only these big, white-skinned people babbling at him in a strange tongue with no sign of mama, hour after hour, day after day? Does a three-year-old see an adult of a different race as another version of the brown-skinned Bangla speaking adults he was familiar with, or are they a bit alien to him – is it like being flown to Mars on a spaceship and being left alone with the Martians?
Do you smile, dear reader, when you read this? Do you scoff? Well, that is how fledgling, how contingent, how absurd, how potentially terrifying, in a word how childlike, is a little toddler’s ability to grasp the world. This is how the removal of a toddler from the home and companions it knows to a foreign foster home – new people, new routines, new smells, new foods, new words, new bed, new toys – has to be understood, nay felt.
And what about Aishwarya? Was Aishwarya taking the bottle when she was removed from her mother? If not, how traumatic must it have been for the little infant to be suddenly deprived of her only known source of food – breast-fed babies can take up to three weeks before accepting the bottle. Even bottle-fed babies can go for days refusing to take the bottle from an unfamiliar person. How was that handled? Does the Norwegian Child Welfare Service just let the baby “cry it out” – a method so popular in the west where the dominant belief is that a baby’s crying means nothing and is only its way of “manipulating” those around it.
How did Aishwarya’s mother put her to sleep? Did she rock her? Hum a Banlga lullaby? Does any of this matter? Pick up a sleepy infant that you have never held before and see how it twists and cries and contorts itself, refusing to settle despite all your efforts to soothe it. Now hand it to its mother or its nanny, and miraculously – silence! Very early on, an infant develops a clear ability to recognise the arms and voice of the one who held it most since it was born and that’s it. No one else will do. To adults that have never been put to the care of infants – think of it like being in love. You cannot lie with just anyone.
So let it be clear to the advocates of the Child Welfare Service that regardless of the whys and wherefores (“was there abuse?”, “there must be more to this story”) of this case, the removal of Abhigyan and Aishwarya from their parents to foster care was traumatic.
Now let us ask, was it necessary? Apparently, the grounds for separating the children from their mother were her “incompetence” and “gross negligence”. The fact that the first court to which the Bhattacharya parents appealed found in their favour shows that these findings are a matter of subjective interpretation at best. In any event, surely the focus should be on enabling parents to perform better, not removing children to foster care? Should not any intervention be to help families stay together rather than to break them up? The answer is negative only if you come from a position that completely ignores the nature of the relationship between babies and young children and their parents. If, in fact, you do not believe in family for children, only “care-givers”.
In the statements of the Child Welfare Service published since the public outcry regarding this case, there has been not a whisper of the humanity and compassion, the eagerness to explore every possibility of preventing the children’s traumatic removal from their parents that you would expect in such a case. They began, in a statement published on the website of the Norwegian Embassy, by stonewalling all inquiry with the empty re-iteration that all action was taken in accordance with applicable laws and policies and that the decision was not motivated by perceived cultural differences. They refused to disclose the facts of the matter hiding behind confidentiality laws. Whom is this confidentiality protecting? Not Abhigyan. Not Aishwarya. Not their parents. Only the Child Welfare Service and its head, Gunnar Toresen.
From some of the things one hears, one wonders whether the legislators, social workers and court officials involved in child protection services in Norway have any familiarity with the facts of bringing up a baby. Apparently, one of the findings against the mother was that she was depressed and confused. As a mother of similarly aged children myself, I can only ask what mother of a toddler and new born is not depressed, overwhelmed and confused? The demands of a toddler, often itself upset by the arrival of the new sibling, and a new born are relentless. Day and night the mother is put through a physical and emotional grind, with no breaks, no weekends off and no end-of-the-day free time. All of this is aggravated in societies where nannies and childminders are either not available, or simply beyond the means of most families. Personally, I believe that babies need their mother, no matter how depressed or confused she may be. But, if the Norwegian authorities are so concerned about depressed and confused mothers, why are they not helping families with childminders and housekeeping assistance? In the case of foreigners, how about offering to fly the parents’ extended family out to Norway and fund their stay there to help with the children?
How do you go from depressed mothers to foster care, in the name of child protection, without checking in first with grandparents, aunts or uncles? Why did the Norwegian courts consider it better in the children’s interest for them to be removed to a strange Norwegian foster home rather than be sent to their own grandparents’ home in India, when their grandparents appeared before the Norwegian courts to be allowed take them? Racism is too simple an answer. This is a system premised on a horrendous disavowal of family ties and bereft of any empathy with baby, child or mother. How can such an ideology be countenanced for child protection?
And this brings us to some questions about the people running the Norwegian Child Welfare Service. What is the background and history of its head, Gunnar Toresen? Are there only men in charge of the Child Welfare Service? What was Gunnar Toresen’s upbringing? Did he grow up with a mother and father present? Is his own experience only that of foster care? Does he have children? Is he married? Is he even living with the mother? How much has he seen first-hand of babies and toddlers growing up in their parents’ homes? Before being given the power to decide the break up a family, have Gunnar Toresen and his colleagues at the Child Welfare Service been educated and sensitized to the attachment of infants and toddlers to their parents, especially the mother; of the meaning of family in bringing up children? What about the competence of the foster parents? What kind of foster parents agree to take over the care of children in the circumstances of Abhigyan and Aishwarya, where there are willing parents, grandparents and uncles asking to do so? Why are they not asking these questions? And if these questions do not occur to them, are they competent to foster these children?
The laws applicable to this case are not just inhumane, but bizarre. Apparently the courts have ruled that the children will not have access to their parents for the next 18 years – except for a few hours each year. What is the logic of this provision? If access to the parents is so harmful, then why permit any at all? And if it is important, then what is the meaning of a few hours each year? Is that not doubly confusing and adding trauma upon trauma to the forcibly separated children? Are Norwegian child protection laws conscious that they are dealing with people, feelings and relationships or are they merely caught up in a chillingly mindless bureaucratic iteration of themselves?
Even assuming the allegations, why did the decision in appeal take four months? Is there not a serious denial of children’s rights, not to mention sheer cruelty, in a system that takes so long to decide whether babies will be allowed to remain with their mother? The average time in the developed world for deciding even commercial suits is three months. In international sporting events, arbitrations to decide disputes take place within a time span of twelve to twenty four hours. Why do the Norwegian courts take so long when it is matter of tiny vulnerable children and their distraught parents?
So those who speak of racism and cultural intolerance only skim the surface of what is happening here. The question to be asked is what grotesque conception of family, of babyhood, of motherhood is at work here? As civil rights and social welfare groups in India get more and more integrated into the politics and funding streams of their counter-parts in Europe and the United States, we in India, and particularly mothers, must start paying a lot more attention to what they are lobbying for in the name of our children. How much of our experience, our insight as mothers taking care of infants, is actually out there in the public domain informing and monitoring the debate about public child welfare institutions? How much attention is being paid to the real trials and tribulations of our work in mothering young children? And most importantly, how much worth is being given to the tremendous task we mothers perform in raising our young charges? It is no mean thing to host another body in your own. To give your body up to be split open by nature or cut open by the surgeon’s knife to bring forth a new life. It is no mean thing to cherish and care for a little being that cannot really reciprocate your attachment or know your effort. To give in unilaterally to your love for your baby, knowing that it will never remember this first stage of its life. Why is it assumed that a mother’s love is only incidental to the question of how children are to be brought up?
If women did not give themselves body and soul to bearing children, that would be the end of the human race. It is as simple as that. So what? Some would say. A deeply misanthropic response. Is that what is going on here? A quiet contempt for life? An unstated hatred of humanity? The case of the Bhattacharya children in Norway raises questions far more profound than the conflict of cultures – it is a battle between the joy of life and its very disturbing opposite.