Fall 2008



Looking Back to Look Ahead

Abuse and Neglect of Children in Institutions

Torill Tjelflaat, Senior Researcher and Torbjorn Bolstad, Associate Professor



In this article, we will look into the conditions for children in institutions (reform schools and children’s homes) as found in five Norwegian investigations (Bergen, 2003; Oslo, 2005; Stavanger, 2006; Trondheim, 2007; Kristiansand, 2007) about abuse and neglect of children. The investigations cover the period from about 1940 to 1990 (the period varied somewhat between the five investigations), and they showed that many children in institutions were seriously abused and neglected. We will raise the question of how this could happen, and look at the development of care systems and legislation for children in institutions after the investigation period, from a children’s rights perspective.


Why investigations?

During the late 1990’s, the media published stories about serious abuse and neglect of children who had lived in children’s homes and reform schools. The former residents told about shocking conditions and experiences. As time passed, many of the former residents told similar stories. This was not just a case of isolated experiences. There was a clear pattern. The foundation “Justice for victims” took up the issue, and it was placed on the political agenda. High-ranking political officials took responsibility and investigations were initiated in the national bureaucracy and in the country’s largest cities to find out what had happened.   


Methodological approach

This article is based on data from investigations in the cities of Bergen, Oslo, Stavanger, Trondheim, and Kristiansand. Data was collected from two main sources: historical documents and interviews. Children who had lived in institutions in the period from 1930 to 1990 (approximately) were interviewed. Staff and some other adults were also interviewed, about 570 “children” and 230 adults in all.


Main findings

Daily care

The investigative committees examined basic living conditions such as food, clothes, school, recreation, and health care services. The living conditions were evaluated in relation to conditions of that period of time. From that perspective, the quality of clothing was mostly satisfactory. The informants related, however, that their own clothes were taken from them, and they were given used clothing which belonged to the institution. These could be old and the wrong size. Some of the children felt the clothing to be like a uniform which identified them as residents of the children’s home. Some shortcomings with food and clothes were uncovered up to the mid-1960s, after which these conditions gradually improved.   


Mealtimes were a very negative experience for many of the children. The social environment for the meals was often inadequate. Forced feeding, denial of meals as punishment, and physical abuse during the meals was reported by many of the informants. These events occurred throughout the whole period being investigated.   


Emotional care

The investigative committees examined the level of safety and comfort which the children experienced through conversations with the staff, in the amount of contact with adults, through encouragement and recognition, and through the feeling of being treated fairly. Inadequate emotional support was found in many situations. Many informants told that they were left to cope for themselves in most situations. For the most part, they had no adults to whom they could turn for comfort, safety, and intimacy.


Physical abuse/punishment

The investigative committees examined the use of punishment and physical abuse including: denial of privileges, extra duties, and use of physical violence. Many of the “child informants” told about serious and systematic punishment. The abuse could include everything from hard blows with the hand/fist to the body, being hit with an object, kicks, and beatings. Boxing the ears, pinching, and hair pulling were also common. With regard to daily care, as mentioned above, there were many unacceptable practices related to mealtimes. Many of the informants told about forced feeding, denial of meals, and physical abuse during meals.


Informants also told about being locked in cellars and other rooms that resembled prison cells. Violence and physical abuse between boys was a frequent topic in the interviews. Some of these abuses may have been “hidden” from the staff, but there was also reason to believe that some staff intentionally allowed children to physically abuse other children, as a form of pedagogical method.


Brutality on the part of some staff members was almost daily behaviour in some institutions. Informants told about individual staff members who would slam boys against the wall, throw them down stairways, and break their fingers. In many cases, it was the leader of the institution or his next-in-command who carried out the punishments or “commanded” other staff to do so. The culture of violence or punishment pedagogy promoted by the leader was critical. Many of the institutions systematized and legitimized the use of physical punishment carried out by staff against children and between children.  


Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse can be divided into two categories:


  1. Physical sexual abuse:  meaning everything from inappropriate touching to intercourse and similar activity.
  2. Non-physical sexual abuse: meaning sexual activity without direct physical contact, with the child being exposed to uncomfortable sensory stimulation and abuse in the form of threats and harassment.


All of the investigating committees found that both forms of sexual abuse (physical and non-physical) had been committed at several institutions. Sexual abuse was reported at nearly all of the reform schools, but also at some of the children’s homes. Abuse was committed by staff against children and by older children against younger. The informants said that this could produce anxiety and fear in the children.


There were differences between boys and girls with regard to abuse by other residents and staff. The boys were the victims of many, and sometimes serious physical sexual abuse, while the girls often told about spoken sexual harassment.   



Differences between reform schools and children’s homes

The reform schools had more serious shortcomings than the children’s homes throughout the whole period under investigation. Although there were changes after 1970 with regard to the number of children in reform schools, the development of professional competence and understanding on the part of the staff, and the development of milieu therapy and other pedagogic intervention; children were the victims of especially serious and often systematic abuse until the 1980’s. 


Children’s homes had a more positive development during the period under investigation. There were many reports of punishment and physical abuse during the 1950’s and 1960’s. This was most widespread in the large children’s homes. The leader’s attitude was very important in this respect. Physical punishment was carried out on a systematic basis and this kind of activity was legitimized. Even though isolated episodes of serious abuse and neglect occurred after the 1960’s, the main conclusion was that conditions in the children’s homes were much improved in the 1970’s.


Can abuse and neglect be understood?

Searching for specific background factors which can help to explain abuse and neglect can be a difficult professional challenge. When it comes to the institutions which were investigated, it is, nonetheless, possible to identify some important factors which helped to create intolerable situations. We will emphasize seven factors which represent different levels of understanding: individual, group, organizational, and societal. Abuse and neglect in institutions can not be understood on only one level. The events must be seen as an interaction between factors on different levels and in their historical context.   


Limited resources

Limited resources including lack of competent personnel, insufficient finances, and overpopulated institutions appeared to be an important explanation for how abuse and neglect can occur. There were long working hours, a high child to staff ratio, and poor salaries. Resources were more limited in children’s homes than in reform schools (Ericsson, 1996). Severe staff shortages at most institutions caused hopelessness which led to actions that would otherwise have been unthinkable.


The total institution

The reform schools, and to some extent the children’s homes, resemble total institutions as described by Goffman (1967). The institution was isolated from the surrounding world, often in a geographically remote location, and with great social distance between “insiders” and “outsiders”. Daily life was characterized by a break down of identity caused by the loss of material and social supports. Goffman calls this “the process of humiliation”. Another process which Goffman describes as typical for total institutions is “the system of privilege”. Behaviour which is consistent with the goals and ideals of the institution is rewarded, while behaviour which is in conflict with these is punished. An institutional culture with the elements described here can both promote and hide physical abuse and neglect, and tacitly allow it to occur (St. melding nr 24, 2005-2006).


Tradition of punishment  

Part of the context for abuse and neglect may be found in a tradition of punishment which is based on partly on revenge, and partly on the use of pain as a pedagogical tool (Raundalen, 2004). Even though physical chastisement was totally banned in reform schools in 1951, and in child protection institutions in 1953, the use of punishment as a pedagogical tool continued until the late 1970’s. Children’s homes were seen as family-like institutions which legitimated physical punishment. Parents were allowed to punish their own children physically until 1987.


The role of the leader

There is considerable evidence that the role of the leader is very important for an understanding of the extent of abuse and neglect. All the investigative reports point to this factor as one important explanation for the extent and nature of physical abuse in the institution. This is apparent throughout the whole period being investigated. The leader’s unquestioned authority has been a consistent theme in children’s institutions since the early reformatories of the 1800’s (Thuen, 2002). The institutions have been organized according to the patriarchal principle. This was also the case for institutions with a female leader. The leader was dominant and always had the last word. The fate of the child was in the hands of the leader, and he/she exercised all power over the child (ibid). The leader’s behaviour and attitudes was fundamental for the culture of the institution. The leader directed and legitimized abusive actions.


The findings of the investigative committees are supported by the research of Sundrum (1986), Thomas (1990) and Utting (1991). They emphasize the critical importance of the leader and his/her style of leadership for abuse of children in the institution, and they argue that the leader of a 24 hour residential institution is the one with the greatest influence upon the institution’s culture, environment, and practical activity.


Marginalised children – Vulnerable children

All children are vulnerable because of their age. The “child informants” interviewed by the investigative committees, were especially vulnerable because of their life history and marginalised living conditions. Most of the children had a life history before they were placed in an institution which was characterized by poverty and physical and emotional neglect. Being placed in an institution increased their feeling of social exclusion and stigmatisation. The abuse and neglect which occurred must be understood as a result of the powerlessness and feeling of inferiority that these children had experienced. The children had no influence over their own situation. Even when the children tried to talk about this to others, they were not heard. The committee reports contain many examples of this.


Deviants seek work with children

The investigative committees concluded that sexual abuse in many cases was connected to individuals, both male and female, who were interested in children sexually. It appears that some people intentionally sought work in child protection institutions in order to come into contact with and achieve close relations with especially vulnerable children, who were then sexually exploited. An American study (Rosenthal et al. 1991) points to this phenomenon as basic for understanding sexual abuse in institutions.


Lack of supervision

Supervision of individual children and institutions was regulated by law, regulations and guidelines. All of the investigative committees found, nonetheless, that municipal and national supervision failed both with respect to individual children and as control over the institutions. Once a child had been placed in care, they were largely forgotten. None of the children ever told about being asked about how they were doing.         


Looking ahead – development after the investigations

The data from the investigations represents many sad stories. A lot of misery has been communicated. It has been difficult for many of the informants to tell their stories (Dyregrov & Heltne, 2007). Much has been suppressed. Many lives have been damaged due to what the informants experienced during their childhoods. All the informants were offered psychological help and support after the interviews to take care of possible damages. The children who had been placed in institutions and who had been abused and/or neglected also received a financial compensation for all the misery caused by the placements.


The investigations have provided important historical information. An important question is how to learn from this experience, to put it in the past and to look ahead. Many have also raised the question if this can happen again. In one respect, we can never be sure that no child will ever be abused or neglected while in an institution, neither at present nor in the future. Bullying, victimization and overly severe punishment can happen, whether intended or not (Gautun et al. 2006; Tjelflaat et al. 2003; Barter 2003). But hopefully, this can never happen in the systematic and intentional way which many of our informants experienced.


There are many reasons for this. First of all, children’s rights have been strengthened considerably since the investigations. In 1981 Norway appointed the first ombudsman for children. The intention with the ombudsman was to promote children’s interests and monitor conditions for children in different parts of the society. The same year, the children’s and parents’ act was adopted. This act gives the child an independent right to participation. In 1954 a new children’s act was also passed. The UN Convention on the rights of the child (1989) was ratified by Norway in 1991. The convention became incorporated in Norwegian Law in 2003. The present child protection act was adopted in 1993, and embodied several of the provisions of the articles in the UN convention, for example the right to protection, provision and participation. It also recognizes basic principles such as understanding children as human beings, and that every action shall be in the “the best interest of the child”. The child protection act is very important for protecting children in institutions. The Ministry of children and equality has, since 2002, issued several regulations specifically designed to take care of the rights and quality of life of children in these situations. Several guidelines have also been issued to ensure reliable routines for the treatment of children in institutions.


Second, children are now understood differently than in the past, during the period of investigation. The child is now understood as a subject with his/her own rights, and not an object subjected to adult’s treatment. The child has the right to protection, provision, and participation. The child shall be seen as an active protagonist, participant, and partner, but also with a need to be cared for and protected (Sandbæk, 2004).


There is also a change in the professional and political approach to services for children in need. Prevention and home-based services are preferred. If out of home placement is needed, foster homes are almost always seen as the best choice. If prevention is insufficient, and a foster home not appropriate or available, then an institution may still be the only alternative. But, the Norwegian institutions are very small (5-8 residents), they are open to the surroundings, children attend public schools and the institutions are often situated in urban areas. This makes it difficult for irregular conditions and abuse to happen.


Residential care requires substantial resources and is very challenging politically, organisationally, pedagogically and not least of all socially. Legislation to safeguard children in institutions, organisational issues and routines are not always sufficient to ensure children a satisfactory daily life in out of home placement. Even with the best intentions, there are always factors that can make this difficult. [SD1] 




Barter, C. (2003). Abuse of children in residential care. NSPCC: http:/


Dyregrov, A. & U. Heltne (2004). Barnehjemsgransking og mediefokusering – deltagernes opplevelser og vurderinger. Rapport fra Senter for Krisepsykologi, Bergen.


Ericsson, K. (1996). Forsømte eller forbryterske. Ad Notam Gyldendal. Oslo.


Gautun, H., Sasaoka, K. ,Gjerustad,C (2006). Brukerundersøkelse i barneverninstitusjoner. NOVA Rapport 9/06.


Goffman, E. (1967). Anstalt og menneske – den totale institusjon socialt set. Paludans Forlag. København.


Raundalen, M. (2004). Overgrep mot barn i barnehjem og spesialskoler. In: NOU 2004:23. Barnehjem og spesialskoler under lupen.

Rosenthal, J., Motz, J., Edmonson, D., & Groze, V. (1991). A descriptive study of abuse and neglect in out of home placement. Child Abuse and Neglect: The International Journal, 15, 249-260.

Sandbæk, M. (2004). Barn i hjelpeapparatet – kompetente og sårbare aktører. Nordisk sosialt arbeid 2, 98-208.

Sundrum, C. (1986). Strategies to Prevent Abuse in Public Institutions. New England Journal of Human Services, volume 6, 20 – 25.


Thomas, G. (1990). Institutional child abuse, the making and prevention of an un-problem. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 4(6): 1-22.


Thuen, H.  (2002). I foreldres sted.  Pax forlag A/S. Oslo.


Tjelflaat, T., Hyrve, G., & Solhaug, H. (2003). Barneverninstitusjonen - nødvendig men ikke god nok. Rapport nr 10 i skriftserien til Barnvernets utviklingssenter i Midt-Norge.


Utting, W. (1991). Children in the Public Care. In: A Review of Residential Child Care. London. HMSO.




Lov om barn og foreldre (1981).

Lov om barneombud (1981).

Lov om barnevern (1953).

Lov om barneverntjenester (1992).

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).

Stortingsmelding nr. 24 (2005-2006) Erstatningsordningar for barn i barneheimar og spesialskular for barn med åtferdsvanskar. Barne- og Likestillingsdepartementet.



Reports from Investigations:


Rapport fra Granskingsutvalget i Bergen. 2003.

Rapport fra Granskingsutvalget i Oslo, 2005.

Rapport fra Granskingsutvalget i Stavanger, 2006.

Rapport fra Granskingsutvalget i Trondheim, 2007

Rapport fra Granskingsutvalget i Kristiansand, 2007.




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