STAVANGER, Norway – One August day, Airida Pettersen received the news many immigrant mothers have come to dread: School representatives told the Lithuanian that child welfare officials removed her two children from the classroom and placed them in a foster home.
She pleaded to know why — but she said nobody would give her a straight answer.
Pettersen, who moved to Norway in 2008 after marrying a Norwegian, is one of hundreds of immigrant parents whose children were taken away by Norway's Child Protection Service, or Barnevernet, ostensibly to protect them from mistreatment.
After a series of highly charged custody disputes, the oil-rich Scandinavian country now faces accusations of cultural insensitivity at best and child theft at worst, as increasing numbers of immigrant children are being seized by officials and handed over to Norwegian foster families. Of 6,737 children taken in 2012 — the latest available data — some 1,049 were immigrants or born to immigrant parents. That compares to 744 children of immigrants taken away, of a total of 5,846, in 2009.
The authorities insist they're acting in the best interests of the children. But their perceived heavy-handedness has stirred diplomatic disputes with several eastern European countries and India.
All Western European countries assert the right to place children, both of nationals and foreigners, in foster care when there is evidence of abuse. And complaints of unfair seizures, allegedly for cultural reasons, are known to arise. But Norway is the only country where it has become as major issue — both due to the scale of the phenomenon and the fierce criticism of the government.
A relative managed to spirit Pettersen's children away from their foster family while they were at school and reunite them with their mother in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius — where they remain today.
Morten Moerkved, head of the agency in the small town of Malvik where the Pettersens lived, said he could not comment on any specific case but insisted that the sudden removal of children happens only in "acute" circumstances, including cases of abuse or "serious deficiencies" in the daily care of a child, citing persistent drunkenness or drug use by the parents or evidence of malnourishment.
Official guidelines also make a point of ensuring that the special needs of a sick or handicapped child are adequately met and that parents have to be able to take sufficient responsibility so that a child's health or development is in no way "seriously injured."
Pettersen believes officials took her children partly because of her 10-year-old daughter's clothes, which she alleges authorities found too provocative for a pre-teen.
"I dress my daughter in a pretty dress and make her comb her hair," she told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Lithuania. "They look at me like I'm from a Third World country. In my country if you don't take care of yourself you don't get a husband."
The child welfare agency insists children would never be removed from their families unless they were considered to be in danger, but Moerkved said that if children were attending class badly dressed or in smelly clothes it would be a factor in considering a child's welfare.
"There are some culture differences between families coming to Norway," said Solveig Horne, Norwegian Minister for Children and Families. "All children who come to Norway have the same rights as Norwegian children ... If they are neglected or abused or if there is violence in the family the (child protection) agency should protect the children first of all."
Statistics show that children born abroad are more than three times as likely to be removed from their homes as native Norwegians, with nearly 3 percent of foreign-born children in foster care.
In May, hundreds of people marched in the capital Oslo to protest alleged human rights abuses by child welfare officials. The demonstration was organized by Norwegian human rights campaigner Marius Reikeras, who has denounced his country's child protection agency in television interviews in the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Turkey.
Reikeras accuses the agency of depriving children and their biological parents of "their fundamental human rights."
"The aim should be to reunite children with their families as soon as possible," he said. "But Barnevernet too often does the opposite and seeks to break biological bonds."
Brushes with the authorities have led to several cases of foreign nationals escaping across borders with their children. Norwegian authorities estimate that almost 500 children have been illegally removed from the country in the last 10 years, usually by their parents.
In January, 7-year-old Gabrielius Bumbulus, a Lithuanian, was returned to his foster family after being caught fleeing through Sweden with his uncle. Three months later, a Turkish mother says she narrowly avoided having her small children removed from home after a tipoff. Instead of showing up at a meeting with officials, Sedef Mustafaoglu made a dash through Denmark to Germany with her two youngest children, aged 6 and 8, and boarded a plane to Turkey.
Speaking by phone from the Turkish capital, Mustafaoglu said an earlier visit from the agency, when her daughters were toddlers, left her terrified.
"They came into my home and filmed how I woke up and how I woke my children, how I fed my children, how I gave them a shower and how I played with them," she said. "Having a child in Norway is like being in a scary movie."
Her husband, Feridun Mustafaoglu, who stayed behind in Stavanger, Norway's rich oil center on the west coast, said their problems started in 2011 when their son started having severe epileptic fits, which he believes officials mistook for signs that the parents weren't caring for the child.
Gunnar Toresen, head of the Child Protection Service in Stavanger, insists there was no plan to remove Mustafaoglu's children but declined to discuss the case, citing confidentiality rules.
He did recognize the fear many foreign families feel in dealing with officials: "Very many people come from other cultures with no government intervening in their domestic affairs. Then they come to Norway and the government intervenes in the family and they have no experience with this," he said. "So I understand that this is a very emotional situation."
In 2012, Toresen was briefly involved in a diplomatic spat between Norway and India when two Indian children were removed from their parents. After diplomatic and media pressure from India, they were returned to their uncle in India.
"The media said the reason for our intervention was that the parents were hand-feeding their children, and the child was in the bed with the parents, which of course had nothing to do with why they were taken away," Toresen said.
He acknowledged that there had been a reference in an earlier case file about hand feeding and sleeping arrangements. However, he stressed the case revolved around much more and complicated family circumstances, thought he provided no details, in line with the privacy policies.
The child welfare service aims to provide in-home help for struggling parents before removing a child. But in the three years to 2013, the proportion of in-home measures decreased while the number of foster cases grew.
Campaigners and lawyers for parents say the decisions too often are rooted in cultural misunderstandings.
"I have a lot of foreign cases. Often the lunchbox ... is not good enough for school or there is problem with schoolwork," said Ieva Rise, an Oslo lawyer representing several Latvian families in disputes with officials. "In Latvia and Russia, children help more in the home when they are quite small. This can be a problem as well."
Gro Hillestad Thune, a human rights lawyer, says Norway's strict attitudes against slapping — acceptable in some other countries — can also be a reason taking away children.
"This zero tolerance (to violence) is a basic problem. Parents should be given a chance to learn through dialogue, not through having their children removed," Thune said. "But the child protection officials take the children instantly ... in too many cases."