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."