Thursday, June 21, 2018

New Report in PACE Asks for better Protection of Children and Families

Next week, an important new report is expected to be voted at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) with the title "Striking a balance between the best interest of the child and the need to keep families together". Rapporteur for this report is MP Valeriu Ghiletchi from Moldova, Board Member of ECPM. The confiscation of the children of Marius and Ruth Bodnariu in Norway, a move that caused outrage in Romania and provoked a reaction in many countries, showed the need of an initiative on this issue in the Council of Europe. 

This report asks Member States to uphold the right of children to be protected from all types of violence. At the same time, it asks from Members to protect the right of families to stay together and to refrain from removing children from parents against their will except in cases in which this is absolutely necessary. It was unanimously approved in the meeting of the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development of PACE on the 26th of April and is expected to be voted in Plenary in the next PACE session next week.

The report highlights that despite the existence of  clear international and European standards in this area of children’s rights, there is still a lack of uniform application of these standards in decisions on child removal, adoption and reunification among Member States. It therefore recommends that Member States should secure child-friendly and transparent processes in these areas. This includes the need to build better collaboration with parents, with a view to avoiding mistakes that can be difficult to correct later. Moreover, it should be ensured that all personnel involved in removal and placement decisions are suitably qualified and regularly trained. Finally, Member States should put in place special safeguards where children have been removed from the family home and end abusive practices. In cases like these, it should be ensured that such decisions are a proportionate response to a credible and verified assessment by competent authorities and that there is a real risk of actual and serious harm to the children involved. Removing children from their parents should be a last resort and should be done for the shortest possible period of time. Moreover, in cases where this is possible, children should be cared for within the wider family. Otherwise, the family's religious ethnic and cultural background should be taken into account when children are placed in alternative care.

In the explanatory memorandum that accompanies the report, the negative example from Norway concerning the Bodnariu case was highlighted. On November 16, 2015, a government agency called Barnevernet abusively confiscated all five children born to Marius and Ruth Bodnariu, a Romanian family living in Norway. Initially, they accused the parents of abusing their children. But a delegation from the Romanian government uncovered evidence that the local authorities were more concerned about the children being "indoctrinated" by their parents’ religious beliefs. Moreover, their legal representation team argued that Barnevernet, the Norwegian Child Welfare Agency used extreme and abusive force not providing at the same time any evidence that the children where physically or mentally abused.

However, this Norwegian  agency has also used similar tactics on other instances. In 1996, the Court found Norway to have violated the right to respect for family life in the case of Johansen v. Norway, where Barnevernet had deprived a mother access to her daughter. In 2011, a diplomatic storm broke out when the authorities took two young children away from their Indian parents, who were living in Norway on a work visa. Barnevernet had cited cultural practices, such as feeding the children with their hands and sleeping in the same bed as them, as evidence that the parents were unfit to look after their children.

The adoption of this report will therefore be a positive development. It will encourage PACE Member States to introduce policies that will protect children from violence but at the same time will respect their right to not be separated from their parents against their will.

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