Children's Rights in Alternative Care: "Walk the Talk!"

Speech by Minister Solveig Horne at the conference Children's Rights in Alternative Care: "Walk the Talk!" in Paris 8.11.2016, organised by SOS Children's Villages International

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Thank you for this opportunity to talk about children's rights in alternative care. Ensuring the rights of children is a primary responsibility for me as Minister.

Children's rights have a strong standing in Norwegian society. Children are viewed as individuals with their own rights. Norway was the first country in the world to establish a public system for the protection of vulnerable children, in 1896.

Norway was also the first country to establish an Ombudsman for Children, in 1981. Now there is an Ombudsman for Children in several countries around the world. I know the French ombudsperson for children will give a speech in the next session.

The best interest of the child is the overriding principle in the work of the Norwegian Child Welfare Services. This follows with our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is implemented in our legal system. Both the Norwegian Constitution, as well as the Act on Child Welfare Services, firmly states the position of this principle.

However, this position leads to certain challenges.

One challenge is how to define the best interest of a specific child. And, will the best interest of this child today, be in his or her best interest one year, or even ten years ahead?

Another challenge is that removing a child from its parents may conflict with both the parent's and the child's rights to a family life.

Legal protection and participation of the child are important tools for dealing with these challenges. During the last couple of years, the Child Welfare Act and the Children Act have been amended to strengthen children's involvement in all matters affecting the child, and in all phases of the case. The child welfare service shall facilitate conversations with the child.

We all wish for children to be brought up in a safe environment, within their own family. Unfortunately, a family is not always a safe place.

Under Norwegian law, all children have the right to protection. The authorities are obliged to ensure that children in need receive necessary assistance and care.

The majority of cases in the Norwegian child welfare service are voluntary assistive measures, provided with consent and cooperation from parents. Therefore, most children are being helped within their family.

Parental guiding and help at an early stage is important for the family. Giving support and guidance, especially to young families, will enable them to be better parents and more children will stay with their families.

If voluntary measures cannot ensure safety of the child, a measure of last resort is to pass a care order and deprive the parents of their right to take care of their child. A care order can only be issued when the child is subject to serious neglect, maltreatment, abuse or serious deficiencies in the everyday care. Children are not separated from their parents unless it is necessary and in the best interest of the child.

A report from the Council of Europe shows that Norway is in the low range of countries regarding the number of children in alternative care.

To ensure the legality of a care order, the Norwegian system has several safeguards:

  • A decision to pass a care order is made by the County Social Welfare Board, not the local child welfare service. The Board is an impartial specialist state body, which serves as a tribunal.
  • The decisions of the Board may be contested before the ordinary courts, up to the Supreme Court.
  • Parents have the right to free assistance from a lawyer in cases concerning care orders. They are also entitled to an interpreter, if necessary.
  • As a main rule, children above 15 years of age are parties to the case.
  • All children have the right to be heard in their own case. The Board can appoint a spokesperson for the child, if the child so wishes. The spokesperson can then bring the child’s views in to the board meeting.

Legal safeguards are important to ensure that the decision is in the best interest of the child and that any intervention in family life is strictly necessary.

What are the alternatives when a child cannot live at home? We have two main possibilities in Norway: foster care and residential childcare institutions.

We believe it is best for most children to grow up in a family-like setting. Today, eight out of ten children in alternative care in Norway live in a foster home. This is a high share of foster homes compared to other European countries.

As an example; we have an SOS Children's Village in Bergen, which offers long-term foster homes for children in need of a new home. In addition, we are supporting an SOS Children's Villages project on unaccompanied minors, which is based on the foster home model in Bergen. I believe this model can be a good option for many unaccompanied minors.

How does the child welfare service ensure the best interest of the child when choosing a foster home?

  • The choice should be based on the child’s distinctive character and individual needs.
  • The child has a right to be heard.
  • The child’s extended family or social network should always be considered, before choosing a foster home.

Today, one out of four children in foster care live with their extended family or social network. Children in alternative care have the right to keep in touch with their parents and siblings, unless it is not in the child’s best interest. We have found it necessary to strengthened the child's right to education and health service when in alternative care.

How can the best interest of the child be defined?

The child's right to express its views, and the right to be heard, are main principles in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as in Norwegian law. Children should participate in every stage of the case. Participation increases the likelihood of making decisions in the best interest of the child.

To be able to participate, the child must receive relevant information.

Also, the opinion of the child must be given weight in accordance with the child's age and maturity.

Securing the best interest of the child also means taking difficult and unpopular decisions. Parents, claiming a right to family life with their children, are criticizing the Norwegian child welfare system.

We are taking the criticism seriously. Child welfare cases are sensitive and difficult matters, which give rise to strong feelings. The decision to deprive the parents their right to family life must be based on legal, fair and secure processes. We have taken several steps to improve the Norwegian system:

  • We are currently working on a reform to improve the work of the child welfare services, in order to provide necessary help for vulnerable children, youth and their families at the right time. The reform aims to strengthen the expertise and competence at Municipal level.
  • There is a need for increased knowledge regarding the processing of care orders. The Norwegian Board of Health Supervision has therefore been assigned to review more than 100 cases regarding care orders. This report will give us more information on how the system works in practice.
  • In addition, we are working on a new Child Welfare Act. The new Act will be modern and simplified as well as improving the legal safeguards for children. 

I will continue working to strengthen children's rights in alternative care. I look forward to hearing about the experiences made through the project "Training Professionals Working with Children in Care". Together, we can learn from each other and make a better life for children and young people. Thank you for your time.