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