An International Crisis over a Little Girl

This article is part of our series called "The New Europeans." Ahead of the European elections, we are visiting people who don't dream of Europe, but who live European lives. The series focuses on moments of joy and conflict that wouldn't have happened without the EU.

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Silje Garmo took nothing with her. No extra clothes. No toys for her baby. She left everything behind. The authorities were trying to track her down and time was of the essence.

They drove for 21 hours, with Garmo sitting in the backseat and her four-month-old baby in a child seat next to her. In the front were a man and a woman Garmo didn't know. When they crossed the border into Poland, nobody said a word. "I was scared," Garmo recalls.

Garmo fled her home country, a move that thousands of people are forced to make every day. But her case is unique. Garmo, after all, fled from a democratic European country to one that is increasingly exhibiting authoritarian tendencies. From one of the richest countries on the planet to one that is much poorer. Garmo and her daughter fled from Norway to Poland.

The journey took place two years ago, but the consequences are still unfolding today. Garmo's decision hasn't just changed her own life, it has also had a profound effect on diplomatic relations between the two countries. Her flight to Poland is the story of a desperate woman who triggered a significant diplomatic crisis between Norway and Poland.

In late summer 2017, Garmo applied for asylum in Poland. Officials spent months considering her case before finally announcing an astonishing ruling last December: Poland had decided to recognize the Norwegian woman and her daughter as being in need of protection. Their homeland, the Polish authorities ruled, had violated Garmo's human rights, which obligated Poland to accept them. It was a step that Warsaw takes only extremely rarely: In the last two years, only one other person has been granted asylum by the country.

What makes Garmo's case so exceptional? Even if the country isn't a member of the European Union, a person from Norway doesn't normally have to apply for asylum in Poland to be allowed to stay there legally. As members of the European Economic Area, Norwegian citizens enjoy freedom of movement to live and work in the EU.

ZEIT ONLINE is in possession of a substantial number of documents relating to the case. They show how Garmo's decision to leave Norway ultimately escalated into a diplomatic crisis. The conflict essentially focuses on a single question: Does a child's well-being take precedence over traditional family unity? Garmo and her daughter are at the center of that debate.

Garmo is a 37-year-old with a face that makes her look far younger. She can come across as serious and thoughtful one minute only to seem as guileless as a teenager the next. Today, two years after leaving Norway, she lives with her daughter just outside Warsaw. It is an area of houses with low ceilings and pine tree-lined streets. Just in front of her front door is a covered sandbox with a bicycle, complete with a child seat for her daughter, standing next to it.

The home has dark parquet flooring and leather furniture and the mantle is covered with family photographs. And there are toys everywhere: stuffed animals on the floor and a pink play tent in the corner – not to mention the balloons leftover from her daughter's second birthday party. The girl hops through the living room in her socks, laughing so hard that her voice begins to squeak. "Be careful!" Garmo calls to her – in Polish, "uważaj." Garmo's daughter has spent almost her entire life in Poland.

"Her right to live in Norway was taken away from her," Garmo says, claiming that she was driven out of her homeland and that the Norwegian state had blackmailed and threatened her and left her no other choice but to leave. "Norway may seem like the perfect democracy," Garmo says. "But it's not."

The Norwegian Child Protection Agency has become a Target of Criticism

Garmo's accusations are directed primarily at a single authority, Barnevernet, the Norwegian child protection agency. She accuses Barnevernet of having destroyed her family's life. Garmo fled the country because Barnevernet wanted to take away her baby, for no real reason. That, at least, is Garmo's version of the story. "The agency does whatever it wants," she says.

The Norwegian child protection agency has, indeed, become a frequent target of criticism. In the last several years, many parents have claimed that Barnevernet took their children away from them on the flimsiest of grounds. In 2016, hundreds of people joined a demonstration in the capital city of Oslo after the agency took custody of a couple's five children. A short time later, more than 170 psychologists, lawyers and social workers wrote an open letter accusing Barnevernet of serious wrongdoing. Families in Norway, they wrote, were suffering from "incompetence and abuse at the hands of the agency."

Garmo's daughter was born on a cold winter's day in January 2017. After giving birth, Garmo was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. But the midwife awakened her early the next morning: Child protection workers were there and they wanted to see Garmo and the baby.

From that moment on, Garmo says, the agency did nothing but harass her, repeatedly threatening to take the girl away and put her in a children's home. The reasons, she said, were unclear and arbitrary. Garmo, they said, led a chaotic life and was unable to care properly for her child. "Lies," she says. "All of it made up."

When the girl was three months old, Garmo continues, she received a warning from her lawyer that the agency was on its way to pick up her child. For no reason and with no proof of Garmo's alleged offenses. The mother says she still has nightmares of her daughter being taken away and brought to an unknown location.

In May 2017, Garmo went into hiding. She feared the agency would come after her and she wanted to protect her child. A friend then suggested she go to Poland, saying families there enjoyed particularly good protection. Garmo had visited the country a few of times before, but spoke no Polish. She didn't have a job or a place to live there, either. "But if I hadn't left, it's likely I never would have seen my daughter again," she believes.

In Poland, Garmo quickly met people who wanted to help her. And soon, she was giving newspaper and television interviews and testifying before a committee in the Polish parliament. She told the same story over and over again: that of a mother whose child was to be taken away from her. Fleeing Norway, she says, was her only choice.

She says people in Poland welcomed her with empathy and support. Sometimes when Garmo was walking through the streets of Warsaw with her child, passersby would bless the girl. They would pray for Garmo and wish her well. Her landlord even gave her a discount on her rent because she wanted to do her part to support Garmo.

But Garmo's most important supporter lives in a prewar building in the heart of Warsaw. A winding staircase leads up to a high-ceilinged office where Jerzy Kwaśniewski can be found wearing a suitcoat and leather shoes, a pocket square sticking out of his breast pocket. One wall is covered with shelves full of case law and a crucifix stands on a table.

Kwaśniewski is Garmo's lawyer and the president of an organization that bears the Latin name Ordo Iuris, or Order of Law. The organization, Kwaśniewski says, is a think tank funded by donations, and its goal is that of protecting Poland's "fundamental constitutional values." Critics, on the other hand, believe Ordo Iuris is an extremist Christian sect. The group lobbies in favor of strict laws prohibiting abortion and campaigns against alleged "homo propaganda" from the West. For the last several years, Ordo Iuris has also had an additional opponent: The Norwegian child protection agency.

Poles make up the largest Immigrant Group in Norway

When Kwaśniewski talks about Barnevernet, his voice remains calm, but he is unyielding. Poles make up the largest immigrant group in Norway, with around 100,000 people from Poland in a country with a total population of around 5 million. Among them are many parents who have come into conflict with the child protection authorities. Ordo Iuris currently represents 16 Polish families that are fighting with Barnevernet over custody of their children. In all those cases, Kwaśniewski says, custody was taken away from the parents for dubious reasons. Agency workers, the lawyer claims, coaxed children to say their parents were beating them. "It has become normal in Norway to take children from their families for no good reason," Kwaśniewski claims.

In summer 2017, Garmo turned to Ordo Iuris in part because the organization offers families pro bono legal representation. Kwaśniewski says he recognized the same pattern with which his Polish clients found themselves confronted. The Norwegian government, he says, doesn't help families – it tears them apart.

But when is it appropriate for the state to intervene in family matters? When should it separate children from their parents? In conservative Poland, such questions are answered differently than they are in liberal Norway. Yet the basic principle is the same everywhere in Europe: If parents neglect or abuse their children, child protective services must get involved and take custody of the child. In practice, however, different countries have adopted different approaches. In Poland, the government tends to wait much longer before getting involved, whereas in Norway, an anonymous accusation can suffice to trigger close scrutiny of a family by the officials.

The countries are particularly divergent when it comes to corporal punishment. In Poland, physical punishment has only been banned since 2010. In Norway, by contrast, not only is every smack a punishable offense, but so too is "emotional violence," such as intimidation and threats, says Kristin Ugstad Steinrem of the Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs, the overarching government body that directs Barnevernet. Many immigrant families are unaware of how strict Norway is with parents who beat their children. Even those who slap their child are in danger of losing custody.

Conflicts between Barnevernet and families that have immigrated from Eastern Europe have escalated time and again. Parents with Romanian, Lithuanian and Czech roots accuse the Norwegian state of taking away their children for no reason. Czech President Miloš Zeman has described Barnevernet as "gangsters who essentially kidnap children." Nowhere, though, has Barnevernet triggered such extreme emotions as in Poland. The dispute focused on the agency has done lasting damage to the relationship between the two countries.

In spring 2019, Norway even declared a Polish consul to be persona non grata. The man had established a reputation for accompanying Polish immigrants to their appointments with the child protection agency, and the Norwegian Foreign Ministry claims the diplomat was intrusive and even threw an object at agency employees on one occasion. For the government in Warsaw, however, his expulsion is just further proof that Norway violates the rights of Polish families.

Garmo, in other words, received asylum in a country whose citizens have frequently run afoul of Norwegian child welfare authorities. She has become a symbol for Norway's alleged inhumanity – and people in Poland see her as an innocent victim who is being persecuted for no reason. But is that true? There's another version of the story as well, and it begins in Garmo's hometown.

In a residential quarter located in western Oslo, balconies are covered with well-tended plants and expensive family cars are parked outside. There are plenty of cafés and charging stations for electric vehicles. House number 7a is a red brick building with two Norwegian names on the doorbell. One belongs to a 13-year-old girl who has lived here since 2015. That's the year the authorities granted her father with sole custody of his daughter. The mother, with whom the girl had lived up to that point, had been accused of neglect by the child welfare agency.

The girl's mother is named Silje Garmo.

Garmo makes no secret of the fact that the authorities denied her custody of a child on a previous occasion. On the contrary: She refers to the case as a further example of the agency's incompetence. Even then, Garmo says, the accusations against her were vague and unfounded. "I know that people think: Where there's smoke, there's fire. But there was nothing."

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Panic Attacks and Depression

Case files tell a different story, and ZEIT ONLINE is in possession of documents pertaining to Garmo's custody battle. In those documents, the child protection agency accuses Garmo of prescription medicine abuse. She allegedly received prescriptions from several doctors for a strong pharmaceutical without the medical professionals being aware of the multiple prescriptions. The agency also writes that Garmo suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, panic attacks and depression. Barnevernet, the papers make clear, was concerned about her psychological state and the welfare of her child.

There is no indication in the documents that Garmo's first daughter was at acute risk. According to the file, her mother didn't beat her or provide her with insufficient nourishment. But contrary to Garmo's claims, not all the tips pertaining to her case were anonymous. According to the file, Garmo's father – her daughter's grandfather – turned to the child welfare agency himself. The file notes that he described the mother-child situation as "extremely difficult."

Garmo's Polish lawyer Kwaśniewski is familiar with the papers and the accusations. He says that the prescription drug in question was paracetamol and that the psychological illnesses were invented, adding that the agency does so frequently. But one person in Norway who knows Garmo and is familiar with the case supports Barnevernet's version of events. All evidence, the source says, indicates that Garmo had been abusing strong medications and that she had been unable to appropriately care for her first child.

Garmo was unable to understand at the time why the state took away her daughter and her grief quickly transformed into anger, which then turned into the conviction that she was being unfairly persecuted by the child welfare agency. Garmo blamed Barnevernet for the fact that her child was no longer allowed to live with her. And she launched a battle with the agency that wages on to this day.

Garmo allied herself with others who found themselves in conflict with the child protection agency. There is, in fact, something of a globally networked anti-Barnevernet movement, with some platforms run by parents and other platforms that have a Christian background. There's a Facebook group named Child Welfare Watch and another called "Norway, Give Us Back the Children You Stole," the latter with more than 10,000 supporters. Websites share stories of families whose children have been placed in state custody and who feel they are being treated improperly. "I'm very glad I don't live in a country with such an evil system," writes one user.

Is it possible to find statistical proof that Norwegian child protection officials are stricter than those in other countries? It's difficult to make direct comparisons because statistics are gathered differently in each country. But relative to its population, Norway did not place more children in state custody in 2017 than Germany, for example.

Some parents have taken their complaints all the way to Strasbourg, where the European Court of Human Rights has heard at least a half-dozen cases in recent years in which the Norwegian child protection agency was accused of having unjustly withdrawn custody. In some cases, the court ruled in favor of the parents; in others, it backed Barnevernet. The verdicts aren't dissimilar to those handed down in cases from other countries. Norway doesn't seem to be particularly problematic from this perspective.

Relative to other parents, Garmo was also lucky: Despite losing custody, she was granted visitation rights to see her daughter for two hours once every two weeks. Barnevernet only allows some parents to visit their child a single time each year. Garmo would meet with her child in a facility belonging to the youth agency, where they baked muffins together or cooked pasta. Then her daughter returned to her father.

Garmo did all she could to fight the ruling that denied her custody of her daughter. On one occasion, she even took the girl to Spain without telling the father beforehand. Officials ultimately brought them back.

Garmo once again became pregnant

In 2016, Garmo once again became pregnant from a man with whom she says she had only a fleeting relationship. Even before the child was born, child welfare officials got in touch with her, an approach that is far from unusual. Officials in other countries, too, keep close tabs on parents with problematic histories. But Garmo felt threatened by the agency and she was afraid of losing her second child.

On the day after she gave birth, Barnevernet agents visited Garmo and her second baby in the hospital. And the agency continued to keep an eye on her in the weeks that followed. They wanted to know whether Garmo was taking an excessive amount of pharmaceuticals and she gave her consent to undergo a drug test. She was examined twice a week by a doctor.

The results of the test were negative but, Garmo says, Barnevernet nevertheless gave her the choice of either moving into a mother-and-child facility or the agency would place her newborn daughter in state custody. Garmo's lawyer at the time confirms that her client had been faced with such a choice and that Garmo only reluctantly cooperated with the authorities and made clear to child protection workers that she didn't want any assistance from them. It could very well be that the officials felt that a mother-and-child facility was the only way to ensure the child's well-being.

To this day, Garmos' lawyer still believes the move was excessive. At the time, the authorities had nothing on Garmo. Their records contained no evidence of neglect or abuse. Yet out of fear of losing another child, Garmo agreed to go to a mother-and-child facility. It was a decision that would set off a vicious cycle. Garmo apparently didn't trust the employees, she refused to let them help her and spent much of her time elsewhere, according to agency case files. Garmo, meanwhile, didn't understand why she had to live in such a "house of horrors." She felt bullied by officials, as if she was under constant surveillance.

An appointment with Garmo, her lawyer and child welfare services had been scheduled for May 5, 2017, at the mother-and-child facility, but shortly before the meeting, Garmo's lawyer got in touch with her. Barnevernet had cancelled the appointment, she said. There are two different accounts of the rest of their conversation. Garmo remembers her lawyer advising her, in a very serious tone, to "take the child and leave the facility. Immediately."

At that time, Garmo's fear of child welfare services had become all-encompassing. The mother believed her lawyer was trying to send her a coded message: That if she didn't run, the authorities would take her daughter away from her. Panicked, she stuffed her passport into her bra, grabbed her baby and quickly left the building through a back door. As she left, Garmo says, her legs trembled so badly that she stumbled.

Garmo's lawyer has a different recollection of their phone call. All she advised the mother, she says, was to go out and take a walk.

In Poland, Garmo claims publicly that Barnevernet intended to take her child away from her on that day in May 2017. But there is no evidence that this was actually the case. Garmo's lawyer says it is very likely her client would have been allowed to keep her baby had she stayed in the facility. Garmo, in other words, seems to have been running away not just from the child protection agency – but also from her own fear.

The authorities, however, did nothing to dispel that fear. Garmo's lawyer and a helper claim that several attempts were made to allay the situation. Garmo offered to return to the mother-and-child facility if she could be accompanied by a psychologist she trusted. The child protection agency declined, according to those involved. Barnevernet said it was unable to comment on individual cases.

At first, Garmo hid with acquaintances, before ultimately deciding to flee to Poland with the help of Barnevernet's detractors. In the past, other families who had trouble with the child protection agency have done the same. Garmo's network organized a car and a driver to bring the mother and her baby to Poland.

After Garmo fled, Barnevernet alerted the police. The authorities were concerned about the child's welfare. That prompted Garmo to get in touch with Ordo Iuris, whereupon the lawyer Kwaśniewski advised her to apply for asylum in Poland. He helped her with the formalities and supported her in the asylum process. In the application, a copy of which was provided to ZEIT ONLINE, it states that Norway had decided to take Garmo's second daughter away from her even before the baby was born. There is, however, no record of such a decision on the Norwegian side. Garmo's lawyer also contradicts this version of events.

From that moment on, Garmo's case became a political issue. It is not enough to merely be persecuted to receive asylum status in Poland. One must also prove that it is in the interest of the Polish state to take in the person in question. As such, Kwaśniewski tried to establish Garmo's experience as a precedent when filling out the asylum application. Her fate was to serve as evidence of the alleged brutality of the Norwegian child protection agency – brutality that was also adversely affecting Polish families in Norway.

The asylum application also included documents from Norway that certified Garmo's psychological problems as well as the neglect of her first daughter. These documents at least partially contradicted Garmo's version of events, yet the Polish authorities granted her asylum anyway. Why? What interest did the Polish state have in taking in Silje Garmo?

Officially, Poland will not comment on its reasoning for granting Garmo asylum status. Her application, however, could provide a clue: It indicates that a positive decision on Poland's part could help the country exert pressure on Norway. The case was "significant for Polish citizens who have problems with Barnevernet," the application reads. Garmo's asylum could also be seen as a political signal to Norway, as a gesture of retaliation for allegedly treating Polish families so poorly.

On a chilly Monday in February 2019, Garmo is standing in front of the Norwegian Embassy in Warsaw, freezing cold. She has pulled her blue scarf high up around her face and shoved her hands deep into her jacket pockets. Ordo Iuris has called for a protest. His organization wants to show solidarity with the Polish consulate expelled from Norway due to his criticism of Barnevernet. In retaliation, Poland has also expelled a Norwegian consulate from the country. Relations between the two countries are at a low point.

Kwaśniewski has invited Garmo to the demonstration. Only a few people have shown up, but Garmo still keeps her distance. Several Polish employees from the embassy in Oslo are also here. As is a man with a sign reading, "A family is more important than the state."

When Polish television reporters arrive, Kwaśniewski waves his client over. "Silje, are you coming?" It sounds like an order. For a moment, Garmo looks uncertain, as if she is hesitant to join him, but then, there she is standing in front of the TV camera with her lawyer. Kwaśniewski makes no attempt to hide his criticism of the Norwegian authorities as Garmo stands next to him, saying nothing.

Garmo is thankful for the help she has received in Poland. But she also seems to realize that she is being exploited. That her asylum isn't solely about protecting her and her daughter – it's also part of a conflict between two countries.

"I don't hate Norway," Garmo says when the TV camera is turned off. She looks up at the skyscraper where her country's diplomatic representation is located. She seems tired – and a little lost.

She has left her family behind in Norway and says she is now living off support from her father, who has been transferring her money. Garmo has no job. She hasn't even taken a language course yet. It's been two years since her escape and Garmo still can't say what her future in Poland holds in store for her.

Garmo is now safe from the Norwegian child protection agency – which is what she wanted – but she's also a single mother living alone in a foreign country.

On the same day that Ordo Iuris held its demonstration in Warsaw and Garmo appeared next to her lawyer in the February cold saying nothing, news began circulating of a Norwegian mother who had been detained at the German border. She had her son with her. Barnevernet had taken the child into state custody in Norway and the mother said she wanted to flee to Poland with the boy, just as Garmo had done.

Maybe, she said, she would also be granted asylum.

With additional reporting by Marcin Krasnowoski, Ole Pflüger, Susanne Hegenscheidt

Translated from German by Chris Cottrell and Charles Hawley