table of contents | abstracts


Child Protection in Norway: Changing Ideologies

Torill Tjelflaat



A frame of reference from which to understand children and their families in a family policy perspective is developed along with examples of social benefits related to families.

The focus is on child protection in Norway, and the ideological basis for changes influencing the services for children in need. Key issues are:
(1) the shift from care to prevention, and,
(2) care and preventive strategies.
How is the child defined and understood in child protection work related to ideology, legislation, practice and research?


On January 1st, 1997, there were 9,995,000 children and most (79%) young people in Norway under the age of eighteen living with their families (Samfunnsspeilet 1996), lived with both parents, who were either married or living together. The percentage of children living with both parents has decreased slightly in the last years. Seventeen percent of children living with one parent have their mother as the daily care person; only 2% live with just their father. Children are a focus in Norwegian policy, and are given priority on an ideological as well as on the practical level. The family policy in Norway can be divided into three main areas:



Several welfare benefits of importance to children and their families have been issues including :

  • General, financial support to all mothers having a child 16 years old or younger. The support is given independent of income. Unmarried mothers (or fathers) not living with the father or mother of the child receive twice the general amount.
  • Special financial support to all unmarried mothers not living with the father until the child is ten years old. There is, however, a proposal by the Ministry to remove the support when the child is four years old.
  • Ten months leave with full salary for all mothers with babies. The father is entitled to take one month leave.
  • Special tax rules including tax deduction for families with children.



These services include :

  • Subsidized preschool,
  • Free health care and immunization,
  • Free dentist, and,
  • Free counseling related to difficulties and problems with the child and being a parent.

An aim of Norwegian family policy is to strengthen the day care system for children. The Ministry of Family's and Children's affairs has issued several plans including increasing kindergartens, after school activities, and school reforms. The ideology is that men and women have equal rights to education and work. In most families, both parents are working. There is political agreement that this ideology cannot be fulfilled without external daily care for all children. Furthermore, all children shall also have equal rights to health care and education. Therefore, it is free of charge.

There is a political and professional discourse going on in Norway about small children's daily life. Is it healthy for children to be in settings other than the family for most of the day? All children are, in a way, institutionalized, as the state is taking more and more responsibility for them. The smallest children (3-6 years old) spend more than eight hours in kindergartens or pre-schools five days a week. Elementary schools participate in organized after school activities and children can remain in school until picked up by parents in the afternoon. Most children (and young people) spend their leisure time in organized activities, consisting mostly of track and field and other team sports. When they are at home, they watch television, videos, or play with computers. Some are concerned about the minimal time children spend together with families, and that this might not be quality time, as the parents are worn out after the daily stress of work. Others believe that this is a normal life in post-modern society, and stress the importance of safety and the learning outside the family.



Two different laws regulate the relationship between family members and other parties:

  • The Children and Parent Act (1981), and,
  • The Child Protection Act (1992)

In 1995, 2.27% of the around one million children and young people under the age of 18 in Norway received child protection services. Child protection authorities are responsible for children up to 18 years of age, but they can be extended to age 20.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Children with preventive and care services in child protection

In 1995, 21,100 Norwegian children received services from Child Protection Authorities (Ukens Statistikk 1996); 16.050 received services at home, mostly on a preventive and voluntary basis, and the rest was taken into care. About 1.5% of children receiving services were in special facilities. From 1995 to 1996 there was an increase of 5% in children receiving preventive services, and a decrease of


5% of those taken into care. The total number of children receiving help is increasing.

Child protection is expected to work to help children remain with their parents. Preventive work is often defined as work designed to prevent drastic interventions such as removing children from their families. Some children, however, have to be fostered or cared for outside the home. Children in care usually stay in institutions and foster homes. Institutions in Norway are very small with two to eight children each. Institutions have always been regarded as the last choice, and, are primarily places for difficult adolescents. The more alternative for children has been fosterhomes. Foster homes have been more specialized to avoid institutionalization of children. These foster homes have developed into substitutes for institutions with increasing costs. Institutions and foster homes are very expensive; this has led to a greater focus on preventive services.

There are also other reasons for focusing on prevention. To belong to and be part of a family is judged as the best alternative for a child. Marginalization and stigma are to be avoided. The Child Protection Legislation (1992) emphasized preventive solutions as alternatives to removing the child from home.

This shift away from care to prevention is one of the most distinct changes in ideology and practice in child protection in Norway. Prevention is, however, a diffuse concept. Most primary preventive efforts designed to improve children's circumstances are not the direct concern of child protection agencies, and child protection has only a limited role in secondary prevention aimed at particular vulnerable groups of children and young people. Prevention for child protection is mostly tertiary preventive work targeting particular children and their families. The main aim for child protection agencies is to help children so that they can remain with their families and avoid additional problems that might lead to them going into care.

Child protection has to secure a balance between providing assistance to families and making sure that they provide adequate care for children and young people. Child protection also has to monitor care in families that are helped by other agencies. Greater emphasis on preventive work means that this often uneasy balance is a pervasive feature of child protection work.



The 1992 Child Protection Act mentions a number of services that can be used in prevention (4-4):
Child protection services should work to improve children's circumstances and contribute to their development by providing advice, supervision and services. When children's home circumstances or other considerations require it, they should provide services for the child and family; for example, by recruiting assistants from the community, finding nursery school or family; for example, by recruiting assistants from the community, finding nursery school or kindergarten places, or by providing help in the home. Child protection should also work to stimulate children's leisure activities and ensure that children and young people are provided with appropriate schooling and work opportunities, or a place to live outside the home if that is needed. Child protection can, if necessary, monitor the situation in the home by appointing a supervisor/visitor. Financial assistance can also be provided where this is of benefit to the child.

The act requires that plans be made for each child. These should be made for specific periods of time, provide a basis for evaluation or review, specify how the child and family are to be followed up, and include specific aims. Children, young people, and their parents should, to the greatest extent possible, contribute toward this planning.

Child protection and preventive services will be illustrated with reference to the county of Sor-Trondelag. This county is quite representative of Norway as a whole. There are about 260,000 people living in the county, which consists of one city, Trondheim, and 24 smaller municipalities.



A range of traditional services are offered mostly on a voluntary basis. Many are targeted directly to the child. Even if they are defined as tertiary prevention, families accept these kinds of help, and some are viewed as social benefits more than intruding interventions or control. Child protection represents a helping hand, and is not a danger to the family. But, these interventions must balance between service and control. If there is not progress in the child's situation or development, stronger interventions can be suggested, for example, to take the child away from the family. The more traditional control intervention are also available on a voluntary basis.


ADVICE is addressed to needs of children, parents, siblings, and other involved parties and aims to find solutions to problems. It is important to enhance the parties' understanding of each others' roles and expectations, improve communication between them, and so reduce the chaos that can often surround poorly functioning families. The emphasis is on providing advice in an everyday and natural context.

FAMILY COUNSELING is usually provided for parents who need to provide a more predictable and less conflict-ridden setting for their children. The problems addressed usually have to do with the relationship between the parents which affects children.

FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE can be provided to families to supplement income and to obtain particular benefits for children. Support is given in the form of purchases of clothing, equipment for sports and pastimes, other necessary equipment, membership fees, and so forth.

ASSISTANCE IN THE HOME is provided for families that have difficulty in managing. Home consultants work to improve parental performance and competence. The target group are multiproblem families that have difficulty in caring for their children, and who do not easily respond to other approaches.

ASSISTANTS are non-professional persons appointed and paid by child protection to help a particular child or a group. The aim is to assist children by broadening their horizons, strengthening their self-confidence, and engaging them in activities that would not otherwise be feasible. The average amount of help provided is four hours weekly, and all children up to 18 years of age can receive this form of support.

WEEKEND HOME OR RESPITE provides children and parents with a rest from stress resulting from poor care, illness, unemployment, separation, divorce, behavioral problems, and other causes. Weekend homes are provided by families with the necessary skills and resources to deal with a particular family and child. The aim is to provide a stabilizing influence. This service is used with children and young people of all ages, and concerning a variety of problems. Child protection provides the coordination and is responsible for financing the service. Service usually takes the form of a weekend retreat for the child once a month.

FREE KINDERGARTEN is often provided for small children with behavioral difficulties, learning difficulties, physical handicaps, or those not receiving adequate care at home. The aim is to provide stimulus, social training, and self-confidence. Kindergarten can also help to provide a stable social setting for the child. Kindergarten can be provided for children up to seven years of age. There is both local authority and private provision.

HELP WITH HOMEWORK is provided for families in which parents are unable to create a positive learning situation for the child. Tutoring is provided for children from 7-16 years of age, and is fully financed by child protection.

A SUPERVISOR OR VISITOR is appointed to keep an eye on the home, and is often in combination with other services. He/she can visit the home at any time. This service is often used in situations where child welfare believes the child lives in a marginal situation.

Figure 2
Distribution child protection services used in Saupstad, Trondheim (Drugli 1997)

Figure 2

Figure 2 illustrates the distribution of preventive services in a local office of Trondheim. Financial aid, assistants, and kindergarten are frequent preventive strategies.




More recent preventive services have a different philosophical basis than the traditional ones. The family is the main unit for intervention, and the prevention is suggested to start at the lowest possible level, preferentially as primary prevention. Some examples include:

For example, the Ministry of Child and Family Affairs and the Ministry of Social Affairs have initiated a large Family Guidance project whose aim is to reinforce and strengthen the parental role by supporting and giving back to parents in their role in the upbringing of children and providing care. Parents are addressed using material that covers various aspects of being a parent and how problems can be approached. There is provision for guidance and practical assistance in setting where parents and children are accessible such as health centers, kindergartens, and schools. This guidance will preferably be offered to groups. Regional supervisors have been trained and will in turn train key-persons in local authorities who will lead multi-professional groups working with families in the community. The project is partly financed from central sources, but local authorities will have to contribute. They are also expected to integrate guidance into their normal activity. The project is aimed at families with children in general, but there is a clear preventive intention. There is considerable uncertainty about how much responsibility central authorities will assume, since the funding that has been made available is short-term.

One visible shift in ideology and practice in child protection was a drive away from care to prevention. Another shift is toward new methods in preventive work focusing on the relationship and communication between the child and the family. This also means a shift to more intruding perspectives and increasing control.

Child protection has been increasingly aware of preventive methods that can enhance parents' competence in their relationship with the child. This is rooted in the philosophy that the child and the parents are a system within which relationships are of decisive importance in their influence on children's development and adjustment (Ovreeide, 1996). Future difficulties can be minimized or avoided by enhancing parents' competence and understanding in their interaction with the child.

Communication is the foundation of all human relations and not least in the relation between the child and the parents. Good interaction between parents and child is a unique learning arena and opportunity, and the quality of this relation will give the child a more or less appropriate basic competence in forming relationships with others. The quality of the parent-child relationship is of decisive importance for the child.

Trial projects as well as more permanent service provision have been established and financed by local authorities. Health centers usually refer children, and this will often not involve child protection at all. The work has preventive aims and depends on voluntary participation on the part of parents. No order or official decision forces parents to take part. Nevertheless, an implied threat of child protection's involvement is often present.

The most usual setting is the kindergarten. The practical arrangements can, for example, involve the establishment of a group of parents (usually mothers) who have difficulty with providing care for their children, and who are seen as being a risk in terms of potential neglect and/or child abuse. Mothers are referred as soon as possible after the birth of the child so that unfavorable development can be avoided. In Norway maternity clinics and health centers usually encounter at risk mothers first. Health centers are the main source of referrals to the mothers' groups.

The mothers meet during the daytime three to four times per week, with their children. The size of the groups varies, but is usually between four and eight families. Two kindergarten teachers are usually in charge of the group. The content varies, but a common element is observation of mother and child together to provide a. basis for advice and instruction about interaction given to the mother. This advice is designed to give a mother a better understanding and knowledge of the child's needs. The starting point is positive and supports established elements in the relationship between mother and child. The staff presents themselves as models for the mother, and act in accordance with the premises upon which the method is built. One aim is that mothers will assimilate the knowledge and understanding acquired in the group so that they will relate to the child in competency ways in other settings as well. Work in the groups also includes practical activities that have an educational purpose: dressing and bathing babies, preparing food, massage, going for walks, and so on. Many of the mothers are alone with their children and lack social contacts. They have little formal schooling. If unable to add to this, they will have poor prospects in the job market. An aim for work in the groups is


to build up the mothers' self-confidence so that they can establish themselves in social contexts, both with and without the child.

Family First removes the risk, not the child, which indicates the basic aim for work with families in crisis using the Family First approach. This originated in the USA, but has also become established in Norway. An extensive trial is being set up in Trondheim. Social workers are trained to intervene in families experiencing crises. Where there is a considerable risk that children will have to be removed from the home. Social workers enter the homes and the families, involve themselves, and work very closely with all the family members. The work includes giving intensive support, encouragement, training family members in problem solving, and making contacts with external agencies. The goal is to help the family over the critical period and the precarious situation, stabilize them, and provide a basis for the child to stay in the family. The intensive contact with the family can involve many hours per week and can last from four to six weeks. Each social worker will only have two families to work with at any one time. Trials have only just commenced, and there has been no evaluation.

HOME START is another method for intervention in young families when mothers are immature, inexperienced, and without a family network. Voluntary workers, often themselves young mothers, enter the family and offer help. They are not professional social workers, but are provided with some professional and financial support from child protection. The voluntary workers help with practical problems, with cooking, take the children out, do the shopping, and so on. An important aim is that the mother in the family should be able to manage her daily life, ans so acquire better motivation and energy to relate to her children and life outside the family.



Provision of broadly preventive services in child protection is a long-established trend in Norway. More services are provided to children at risk while they live at home, and the numbers of children in care and not living at home have remained much the same for two decades.

There are a number of traditional preventive devices that provide assistance for the family. These are being supplemented by newer approaches that emphasize improving interaction between parents an very young children, or intensive support provided in the home. Other innovations are services for mothers in groups and for young people. The newer services are mainly aimed at vulnerable mothers and the mother-child relationship. There has been shift toward promoting and strengthening the family in social policy as a whole, and an assertion that the family must assume more responsibility for upbringing and moral education of the young. Vulnerable and poorly functioning families benefit from this since child protection and other services try to preserve the integrity of families whose care of their children is questionable.

Changes in the law and large amounts of funding injected into child protection in the early 1990's has contributed to the continuing expansion of preventive services. There are some instiutional limitations that have to be overcome. With a dispersed population and generally small local authorities, innovation and intensive services tend to be dependent on local professional initiative. Thus, both the qualtiy and the scope of provision are uneven. The Ministries' Family Guidance Programme tries to compensate for this, but it is not clear at present how such an ambitious program can be financed. There is a lack of emphasis on evaluation in which both traditional and innovatory approaches would benefit from more systematic evaluation.

The new preventive services have relatively high costs, and there may be limits to local authorities' capacity to fund innovation. Standards vary widely already, and it is hard to see how this can be avoided.

The expansion of preventive work has been one of a number of factors tending to make child protection more dependent upon cooperation. It faces ever-increasing commitment linked to its role as coordinator and monitor. Mandatory requirements (plans and reviews) have led to a great deal of follow-up work for child protection staff. Our research in Trondheim indicates that follow-up of children and families receiving service accouints for about 70% of all child protection work devoted to clients. Setting-up, co-ordination, and follow-up of preventive services alone represents about half of the total workload in local authority child prtection. There may be difficulties ahead if we are to continue offering preventive sevices to a relatively broad range of children and families. On the other hand, the extra funding made available in the 1980's has contributed to continued growth of preventive work, even though demand for child prtection services, in the form of reports of children at


risk, has been at a hight level.



The child protection act provides that the following conditions can lead to a child coming into public care, (4-12):

  • The daily care situation is far from sufficient, and the child is not given contact and safety needed according to age and developmental stage.
  • The parents do not secure medical help and training for sick or handicapped children.
  • The child is exposed to neglect or abuse.
  • The child's health and development is in danger in the future because of incompetence of the parents

The act mentions three alternative placements for children in out of home care (4-14):

  • Foster homes
  • Residential homes
  • Special facilities for handicapped children

Foster homes, residential homes, and institutions,are administered by a county office. This office also has the duty to help local authorities to find the best placement alternative for the child. The Ministry monitors the institutions.

Figure 3
Out of home interventions in the county of Sor-Trondelag 1996

Figure 3

Figure 3 shows the distribution of children in out-of-home care in one area of Trondheim; 346 children were in forsterhomes in Sor-Trondelag. Of the 72 available places in institutions, nine are for children under twelve years old, nine are for families (mostly mothers and children), and 54 are for adolescents 13-18 years of age. Fosterhomes are thus the most common out of home intervention for small children, and residential homes are mostly a service for young people.

More and more families with small children are having difficulties meeting their obligations to their children. There is increased need for crisis intervention and immediate help, as well as to keep mother and child together. Young people in need of care are coming into care at another age, particularly young people having received preventive services from local authorities, or who are abusers. More young people from families where material conditions in the homes are satisfactory, but the social and psychological conditions are damaging, which are also coming into case.

Care strategies for small children and adolescents differ. New born babies are rarely removed from their parents if there is a chance of improvement. There are care facilities to keep the mother and the baby together. Work with these mothers is based on learning and communication principles. Clinical procedures are used to measure the mother's communicative skills and competence. The child and the mother are viewed and treated as a unit. Children up to twelve years of age are mostly in fosterhomes and not in residential care, but some are evaluated as not suitable for foster homes. These children often have behavioral and social problems, and have difficulties in relating to peers. For older children the traditional milieu therapy is still the basis for treatment and care. There is disagreement about whether the main focus in residential homes shall be on care or psychiatric and psychological


treatment. Child protection is afraid of taking responsibility for even more of the tasks of the child psychiatric system. However, specialization in child care is steadily increasing.



There are several issues with particular interests to children in Norwegian Policy.

Norway was the first country in the world to create an ombudsman for children in 1981. The intention of the ombudsman was to be an independent spokesman for children, and to not be obliged by any governmental or other officials' viewpoints or priorities. The children themselves could contact the ombudsman's office, tell about worries or problems, get advice, and be directed to proper services. Children use the office. The first years after opening, only a few hundred children called. Today the number is between two and three thousands a year. The ombudsman also takes steps to intervene in matters he/she believes are important to children.

Norway adopted the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. The U.N. Convention clearly states that children have to be viewed as individual subjects. As Verhellen (1995) says, "children were no longer regarded as beings who are not yet adults but as fully-fledged individuals with their own meaning. The Convention led to the first faltering steps toward recognizing children as human beings," (p. 15). This is the third ideological shift - the transition into understanding the child as a subject with own individual rights, someone that is not the property of someone else.

In particular importance to child protection, Article 12 in the U.N. Convention gives the child the right to express their views in matters involving them. According to The Norwegian Child Protection Act (1992), young persons twelve years and older always had this right. Further, the young persons' views and wishes shall be emphasized. If the child is younger than twelve, it shall be informed of actions of the child protection authorities, and shall have a say. This depends of course on the nature and the severity of the case, and if the child is old enough to understanding it.

The child is considered an active participant in the decision process about its life. Of course, this is not easy to fulfill at all times. Research at the Center (Tjelflaat, 1997) shows that there are several obstacles to be overcome at the practical level:

  • The child has difficulty in grasping the situation. The child often has to master several crises at a time, and has to relate to something that seems very unclear and unsecured.
  • There are relational problems between the child and the social worker. Some social workers have difficulty talking with children and particularly children in painful situations. The result can be lack of action on the part of social worker.
  • Cases are handled in a hurry, with little time to involve the child.

We are investigating how social workers view the child in the child protection work. Social workers state a child-oriented approach in their thinking. Examples of quotations include:

  • The child is the principal employer of the child protection authorities.
  • The child is the most important individual person in the case.
  • The child is an individual.
  • The focus has to be kept on the child.
  • The child and the family has to be understood as one unit.
  • The child has to be understood as a subject in a contextual frame.

We have just started to look at some of the social workers case records, supplemented by interviews related to every case to study the kind of child-orientation that appears in practice. Preliminary results show a gap between findings in the cases and the ideology. In several cases, the child is not considered as an individual at all. It is the family's situation and the parents' competence in raising children that is the focus. The child is viewed as an object, a victim of dangerous circumstances, and prognoses are made on the basis of theory about children's development and needs more than what the particular child concerned needs. The child is often not really present in the case. Other studies also show that the child is seldom spoken with in the child protection process (Clausen 1997, Tjelflaat 1996).


There is a lack of methods in child protection work about how to handle the individual child in practice. Many social workers have barriers to speaking with children, and particularly small children. Traditional communication tools in social work are not sufficient. Social workers are not sufficiently trained to make observations of the child and to judge the child's development. It is easier to relate to the parents and other adults.

Psychological theory and clinical methodology is reflected in the new methods. One criticism directed at this type of preventive work, is that it is too focused on the parent-child relationship, and tends to divert attention from the larger social context of mother and child. Mother and child may need support in more areas if mothers are to apply the knowledge and understanding gained in the group, in their everyday life, and situation. Even the mother has learned to understand her child's crying in a different way. This is hardly a guarantee that she will be able to deal with it better in a small flat, alone, short of money, and with several children to care for. Stress in such a situation may lead to abuse, although the mother understands the principles of interaction with her child. Another criticism is that there has been too little evaluation and follow-up of the mothers. We do not know enough about the extent to which they actually do assimilate knowledge so that it can become a natural part of their self-expression. Nor do we know whether mothers may need occasional refresher courses if the treatment is to maintain its effect.



The main political family ideology in Norway is based on the principle of keeping the families together. This refers to ordinary families as well as to families in difficult situations who care to the attention of child protection.

However, the state is taking more and more responsibility for children, and the time families spend together is decreasing. Some say that Norwegian children are institutionalized and spend most of their day on public arenas.

In child protection, there is also a profound ideology of keeping families together, and to avoid removing the child from its home. Therefore, preventive strategies have to be tried before moving the child.

New methods in the preventive work are focusing on prevention at the lowest level possible. Preventive strategies can be divided into two main areas. The traditional, where more service focused methods are directed to the child and conditions of the family. New methods focus on the child and the family as a unit and try to enhance the competence and communicative skills of the parents.

It is difficult to find a child-orientation in child protection work. Even as social workers at the ideological level claim that the child perspective is of decisive importance.


Clausen, J. 1997. Barnevernet og barnet. Sinnets Helse no 3. 1997:8-12.

Drugli, M. B. 1997. Barnevernstiltak pa Saupstad - en evaluering. Trondheim kommune.

Tjelflaat, T., B.O. Utgaard, E. Marthinsen, G. Clifford. 1997. Child Protection - Preventive Strategies in Norway. Working Report, CAPCAE.

Tjelflaat, T. 1996. Young person's participation in the transition process from family living to residential care. European Course on Children's Rights, Campobasso, Italy. Under Publishing.

Verhellen, E. 1996. The Convention on the Rights of the Child. In Annali dell' Instituto di Dritto e Procedura Penale. Salerno: Universita degli Studi.

Ovreeide, H., R. Nafstad. 1996. Barn og foreldre som et system. Barn, No 2:9-22.

The Child Protection Act. 1992

The Children and Parent Act. 1981.

Samfunnsspeilet. 1996. No 3.

Ukens Statistikk. 1996. No 42.


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