Norwegian officials have kicked up an international controversy by taking custody of the children of an evangelical Christian family, whose defenders say they are being targeted for their religion.
The scandal involving Ruth and Marius Bodnariu and their five kids isn't the first to hit Norway's child protection system, the Barnevernet. Others have also charged Barnevernet bureaucrats with wrongly seizing children and discriminating against foreigners.
But the Bodnarius' case, which involves five children, is especially striking.
Last November, Barnevernet officials came to their house in Naustdal, a remote Norwegian valley, twice without notice, according to the BBC. First, the officials took the couple's eight and ten-year-old daughters and two sons, aged two and five, and ordered the mother to come to their office for interrogation. The next day, they returned and took the couple's then-three-month old baby boy.
While Ruth is a native Norwegian, Marius is Romanian. The two met when Ruth was on a religious mission to Romania, said Cristian Ionescu, a family friend who is a reverend at the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church in Chicago.
"You can imagine how tragic this is for them," Ionescu told VICE News. "They are crying all the time. They have lost weight. They have been desperate at times. God and family and friends all over the world give them prayers and encouragement."
Ionescu and others have planned demonstrations in front of the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, DC and other locations around the world on Saturday. In the US alone, they've garnered more than 60,000 signatures for a petition calling on Norway to return to the kids to their parents.
Norwegian officials said that they couldn't discuss the details of the case because of privacy rules. But reports said that a school principal first raised concerns about the family, and Ruth admitted to the Barnevernet officials that that she would spank the children, which is illegal under Norwegian law.
"Not every time when they do something bad, more occasionally," she told the BBC, referring to how often she resorted to spanking. Officials, she added, "didn't find any physical marks or anything like that when they had medical examination on them, they were, are, all fine."
An undated photo of the Bodnariu family. (Photo via Flickr)
Though he was unaware of the details of the case because of confidentiality rules, Jon-Åge Øyslebø, the minister counselor for culture, communication, and education at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, said that it's not a trifling matter to remove children from parental custody in his country.
"Children rights are very strong in Norway," Øyslebø told VICE News. "It's forbidden by law to apply any kind of corporal punishment."
The family was allowed to meet together in February for the first time since the children were taken. Last week, after the family took the Barnevernet to court, a Norwegian judge gave the Bodnarius custody of their baby and allowed them to see the two boys twice a week for two hours at a time, according to the family's website. It's not clear what the court determined regarding the two girls.
The court verdict is private, said Øyslebø. But he speculated that the court must have agreed with the Barnevernet officials if the judge didn't let all the kids go home.
"The verdict indicates that there were reasons to intervene in this family," he said. "The decision to place them in temporary energy shelter homes was based on circumstances in the home and related to the children's upbringing."
The children are now in emergency custody. A county panel in Norway is now scheduled next month to decide whether the children should be placed in foster care or returned to their parents.
A protest supporting the Bodnariu family against the Barnevernet took place in February in Oslo.
Ionescu suggested that Barnevernet officials didn't approve of the role of religion in the Bodnariu's home. The couple complained that investigators asked them extensively about their faith, whether it affects how they raise their children and other questions that Americans would find offensive, he said.
"It's a pretty secular country," said the reverend. "They have a new translation of the Bible that erased all the verses that talk about disciplining your children."
Øyslebø disputed that thought. The Leader Council of the Pentecostal Movement of Norway also issued a statement saying that it doesn't believe Barnevernet officials were discriminating against the faithful.
"We have no reason to suspect that we are being treated differently than others in our country, due to our faith," the statement said.
But Norwegian childcare experts have raised red flags about the Barnevernet. Last year, before officials took the Bodnarius' children, 170 psychologists, social workers, and other professionals signed a public letter to officials saying the system needs reform.
"Children are removed from the home on very weak evidence characterized by speculative interpretations," the letter said. "Too often we see that biological parents, who do not have all the world's resources behind them, stand no chance against a big and powerful public apparatus. We see a tendency for decisions based on incomplete observation basis and tendentious interpretations."
A "lack of parenting skills" is the reason most often cited by Barnevernet officials who are taking children, according to the BBC, which reported that foreign mothers in Norway are four times more likely to lose their children to the system.
Accordingly, examples abound of angry foreigners damning the Barnevernet.
Last year, Czech President Miloš Zeman compared the Norwegian child protection service to the Lebensborn program in Nazi Germany, which aimed to give the children of unmarried women to Aryan parents.
Zeman was discussing a 2011 case where Barnevernet officials took two boys into custody because they told their nursery school teacher their father groped inside their pajamas. Police never brought charges against the father, but the parents still don't have custody of their children and the Barnevernet put one up for adoption last year. Norway has since agreed to notify Prague when it investigates parents who are Czech citizens.
Lithuanian talk radio has also mocked the Barnevernet, saying officials seize foreign children to reduce inbreeding in Norway. Brazilian Vitoria Alves Jesumary fled for sanctuary in her country's embassy in Oslo three years ago after Barnevernet official raised questions about her daughter's eating habits. And Polish private investigator Krysztof Rutkowski has twice abducted children in the Barnevernet's care and spirited them out of Norway to their parents in Poland and Russia.
Julie Gilbert Rosicky, executive director of the American branch of the International Social Service, a global child protection organization, said it was peculiar for officials to take children away from their parents unless the home was truly dangerous to their welfare. Norwegian officials might have otherwise explained what the Bodnarius were doing wrong before they simply grabbed their kids, she suggested.
"The bent of child protection is: do everything you can to keep the kid with their family," Rosicky said. "I hope and pray Norway has some legitimate safety concerns."