How a mother lost her children to the State (and fought to get them back)
We all have very warm associations with the ways in which we were brought up. The meanings of our experiences are so intricately woven around cultural traditions that they are often impossible to fully explain to an outsider. Why something was funny, why another was treasured, why someone was loved and why another was avoided, why some flavours were cherished and some spaces were treasured, these are all the substance of our childhood memories. Yes, many times, not all these experiences are pleasant, but for the large part, we all grow up developing our own unique collection of memories and meanings. These memories make us who we are, as we read in the posts of the last month on the issue of Identity and Selfhood. What happens when we move before our identity is fully developed? The expression ‘Third Culture Kids’ refers to precisely this phenomenon: Children who grow up in places where they were not born. Parenthood is not easy and being a mother for the first time can be a daunting experience especially if this happens in an unfamiliar setting. As Luthar has argued, mothers need active and consistent support from others around them, perhaps even more so when they move from familiar circumstances to a foreign land.
Depending on the details: reasons, relationships, circumstances, consequences, such movements can cause a great deal of upheaval in family life. Shifts can be from a large joint family to the relative isolation of bringing up children without that support, movement from a village to a city, or from one region within the country to another. What happens when a family moves to a different country? In this post, we bring you the story of a young couple who moved from India to Norway and tried to bring up their children there. Finding the strain of being parents for the first time added to the stress of lingering differences in the absence of a strong family network can leave a person isolated, anxious and even angry. In such a situation, when support is offered by an agency, it is likely to be accepted. Unbeknownst to this couple, the support that was offered on account of some signs of marital difficulty and their son’s developmental challenges, became the instrument with which their children were ultimately taken away from them. In a recent conversation with Team Masala Chai, Sagarika revisits her nightmare in Stavanger, a time when she lost her own children to an organization that promised her support for their care. But she, with the support of her family and some friends, did not give up till she got them back. This is her story.
About the family
As per news reports, Mr. Bhattacharya migrated to Norway in 2006 to work as a geophysicist and IT specialist in an oil company. In December 2007, he returned to India to marry Sagarika Chakraborty. Sagarika was born and brought up in Kolkata and this was her first trip overseas. She looked forward to a comfortable and happy life in her new home. Soon, the couple was expecting their first child, for which Sagarika returned to India to her natal home, as is customary. The care that an expectant mother can receive with her natal family is believed to be an important reason for this practice, especially for the first child. Their son was born in Kolkata in October of the same year and Sagarika stayed on in India for some time. Her son was 14 months old when she returned to Norway. There are some reports of the fact that the relationship between the young couple was not smooth-sailing, and perhaps Sagarika’s extended stay in India after the birth of her son was related to some trouble between the two families and also between the husband and wife.
Her husband worked long hours at work and was not able to give much time to the home and family life. Sagarika was a full-time mother and was responsible for all the housework which her husband perhaps felt that he did not need to share. He was also compelled to take language classes to add to his existing load of work, making him even busier than he was at work. Soon the couple was also expecting their second child, and she reported having had a difficult time with this pregnancy, so they decided to enroll their son into a local nursery. The morning sickness was severe. She found herself quite isolated and the struggle for caring for her son and a difficult pregnancy, but successfully managed through this difficult phase and gave birth to a daughter in December 2010. The relationship with her husband, however, was not thriving, to say the least. He was extremely busy at work, and the challenges of being young parents in an unfamiliar place surrounded them. With the new baby in the house, the work escalated, and her husband was not able to make time to help her out. With the older one just over 2 years of age and a baby, Sagarika was overworked. Barely able to recover from difficult labour, she also had the task of daily trips to the school to pick up and drop her son. At this point, the school teachers commented on the fact that their son tends to have tantrums and the mother appeared a bit disorganized, as she was sometimes late in arriving for the morning class. The family was placed under a scanner, as is common practice when something that doesn’t fit well with the local images of family life is encountered.
At home, they continued to speak Bengali and lived in accordance with the traditions they were familiar with. Because of the difficulties they were perceived to be facing, the school advised the couple to take Marte Meo counselling for dealing with their son and handling their relationship and household better. This was initiated when the daughter was a young baby and professionals from the Norwegian Child Welfare Service (CWS), a public authority, paid visits to their home for observations. These visits also had several video recording sessions as well.
Matters took a turn for the worse in the summer of 2011. After several home visits and prescribed consultations, CWS took a decision to separate the two children from the parents based on their home observations and the son’s conduct at school. One of the episodes related to Sagarika’s handling of her son’s distress when she picked up the daughter to breast-feed her. Already uncomfortable about being watched and filmed at home, sometimes during the breast-feeding session, Sagarika did what Indian parents commonly do. She raised a threatening palm to her son and asked him firmly to stop what he was doing since there were people in the house. Without understanding the context or communication intended by the gesture, this was taken as a direct threat of physical abuse and perhaps the final reason for separating the children from what was seen as an ‘abusive situation’. Other allegations were peculiarities in sleeping arrangements: The mother slept with the baby and the father with the son, more to ensure that the son would sleep undisturbed; and ‘force-feeding’, when the mother fed the young boy with her hands to ensure that he would finish his food. On another occasion, Sagarika closed a kitchen door to pick up some broken glass while the CWS authorities were observing her to make sure that her son didn’t hurt himself with the broken glass. Unfortunately, this was read as “locking” the son in another room, when actually she had asked one of them to watch him! Also, they said that the four-month-old daughter didn’t “look at her mother in the eyes” and that was peculiar. Furthermore, Sagarika’s perceived unwillingness to accept her son’s assumed ‘disorder’ was also seen as a sign of being an inappropriate caregiver. Her understanding of the situation with the son was that he was jealous of the little baby and his tantrums and disruptive behaviours were linked to that. This is not how the school and CWS saw it. Sagarika was unable to comprehend why these meanings were being attributed to her handling of her children. Being unaware of the language and culture of the local people, she was taken by complete surprise at the outcome of these observations.
The son and daughter, then 2½ years and 5 months old respectively, were taken from their homes and placed in State custody till they were 18 years of age. The decision was taken that they should have minimum contact with their parents, no more than three times in a year. Both parents were stunned by the sudden decision, from their perspective the observations and sessions had been going well. The allegations of inappropriate care were levelled against them. The mother was traumatized by the grief of losing and not being able to meet her children and the stress of the situation also took a toll on their relationship. Noted activist and lawyer Suranya Aiyar argues that Sagarika’s was a case of a woman being caught with “the worst stresses of Indian family life combined with the worst stresses of Norwegian/Western family life.”
After a long battle with the CWS and the intervention of the Indian Government, Sagarika, by then legally separated from her husband received the custody of her children. She now lives in Kolkata and both the children are with her. The details of the legal battle are not our concern in this post.
Extracts from our conversation with Sagarika
“You know life is not easy in Western countries. I had to manage everything on my own. I had to take care of the house, and both my children. Abhigyan, my son, was a difficult child so disciplining him was always a challenge. He started going to a nursery. We had to stay with him in the nursery for long hours as they did not agree for us to leave him. I used to go to the nursery with my baby because they wanted me there. At the nursery they never said anything about him to me. He was adjusting well, I thought. Then suddenly, one day, an official at the nursery suggested that someone from CWS will come home to help you take better care of your daughter and will also help you with some housework. I did not know why she was coming. I merely agreed thinking it might help me.”
The highlighted portion of Sagarika’s narrative clearly identifies how cleverly she was misled into believing that the agency was on her side, there to make her feel comfortable and safe to open up her home and her life to them. However, as indicated in this and other reports, they spent most of their time evaluating her and keeping detailed notes about their understanding of her gestures and actions since they did not understand the language she was using. Due to the language barrier between her and the CWS personnel, there was no opportunity for any conversations about the children and there was no attempt on their part to access a Benagli speaking translator to better understand what was going on. She recalls that the personnel came with files in hand and spent their time just looking at her and her children, often making her very uncomfortable in her own home. There were hardly any exchanges between them and her. We try to imagine such a situation in our own homes and cannot shake the sense of deep violation at this intense scrutiny of personal life.
“The lady officer from the agency used to come often to observe us. She used to come at any odd time, while I was cooking or feeding my baby. She just used to sit and keep looking at me. I didn’t understand their language very well so wasn’t able to talk too much. But they never even indicated to me at any time that there was any problem, never gave me any warning about what they were writing. I never imagined that they could do such a thing as taking away my children. I was shocked when that happened”
The Child Welfare Services were associated with the family for over seven months and for the entire period of observation and counseling, there was no indication of any attempt to advise or suggest to the mother or father about their interpretations, not even checking of they had correctly understood what was going on. Neither of the parents had any idea where these sessions were headed, as far as they were concerned, these people had come to help them with their son, and to help them deal with his difficulties. At no point did they even imagine that it was THEY who were being scrutinized and being secretly held responsible for what was going on with their son. No warning signs were issued by the officers. We asked Sagarika if they had ever approached her husband about these matters, since he would have been able to communicate with them easily. He was studying the language.
“I had no idea what they were thinking and planning. Neither me nor my husband were expecting this consequence. We were never informed that there was any problem with us and that the children could be taken away by the CWS. Both of us knew about the counseling and observation part and we had openly agreed to it for the sake of our son. But I remember very clearly that when I did request a cancellation or a rescheduling of the home visits, I was told that this would not be possible. Even on days when I wasn’t feeling well, they insisted on coming. I remember being extremely uncomfortable on such occasions and I wanted to be alone with the baby, wanting to rest when the baby slept, but they sat there through everything, just sat there and observed everything, constantly writing down things in their files. On some days, I felt awful, I didn’t know what to do.”
Even during this conversation, so many years later, Sagarika is still puzzled about why exactly did they consider her actions so bad that they would take her children away from her. She believed she was a caring and devoted mother who was willing to do whatever was needed for her children.
“After my daughter was born, me and my husband were sleeping in two different rooms. My husband used to sleep with my son and I used to sleep with my daughter. You know, little babies keep getting up in the night to feed so we thought that this is the best for all of us. I think now that the CWS thought it was wrong for us to do this. That it was wrong for me to sleep with my baby. I just cannot understand why they would think that. Many times, I could see them frowning at me, but they never said anything. Like when I was preparing food, I could see they did not approve of what I was cooking, and when I was feeding the children also, I think they made many notes about that. I know later they did say that I used to feed the children with my hand, and I think they said that is wrong. I think they found faults with most of the things I did. As a child, my son did not play with many toys, and when he was a baby and I used to be cooking, I used to let him play with the utensils in the kitchen. This is something we all do in our families. I think this also became a point of complaint about me, they felt a child should play with toys and not kitchen utensils. I did sometimes get angry with him and would threaten him by raising my hand, but that was only a threat. I would raise my voice only when there was something unsafe like a hot surface. I would want to prevent him from getting hurt. I think they put me down as an abusive mother, and I cannot understand how they came to that conclusion.”
“Whenever they came, they spoke only in their own language whereas we tried our best to speak English in their presence, a similar request from us was not accepted. Therefore, I had no clue about how they were interpreting what was going on. I think they were also aware that we did not have much support from the community since we didn’t know many people there”.
Through their recordings, observations and interpretations, CWS was building up a case against the family. A case that would eventually lead to a sudden and complete removal of the children on one fateful day. There was no warning and no negotiation allowed. They just landed up at their door, came in and took away the children.
“On 9 May 2011, two days before the CWS took my children away, I went to the health station for my daughter’s vaccinations. She got injections on both legs and was in pain and had developed fever. I was not able to sleep those two nights. My husband was also very tired. I still went to the kindergarten for the sake of of my son and I thought that when I get him back from the kindergarten, then the whole family can relax. At this time, the CWS people again insisted on coming home. I was very stressd due to the lack of sleep and didn’t want any one at home and tried to tell them about the vaccinations, the pain, the fever, and our sleepless nights. They insisted on coming. I started to prepare breakfast and they started some questions about household duties and who does what. I told them that this was not the right time for them to ask us questions, we hadn’t slept and needed to finish the household tasks. The officer then took my daughter out of the house saying you are tired, we will take your daughter for a walk outside. While we completed our work we waited for the child to be brought back. At this time, after about an hour, we were told that our children have been taken to a care home and we will not be allowed to see them. [Pause] ……………….. I don’t have words………………I cannot tell you…………..I cannot explain what I felt……..I remember I was crying, hysterical, shouting……I asked how they could do such a thing………..But I was not heard. Later, I heard that they had recorded my behavior as hysterical and taken that as further proof of my unsuitability as a mother. Tell me…..how would you react if your children are taken away from you?”
After months of effort Sagarika’s parents were able to get the Government of India to intervene on this ruling. This was followed by negotiations between CWS and the Indian Government. However, when they did release the children it was to the young unmarried brother of her husband to whom they gave custody of the children. After a long battle, in January of 2013, Sagarika and her children were legally reunited by the order of the Kolkata High Court. They have been together since.
Their father, Sagarika’s husband, continued to stay on in Norway and has never visited either Sagarika or his children again. Sagarika has been subjected to repeated psychiatric and psychological assessments by experts appointed by the Government to ensure her mental well-being and the capacity for her care for her children adequately. She was never found failing in any way. Her nightmare was finally over.
One of our experts reacted after reading the story, that remembers how she felt in moments when she was alone with her child.
“Being with my child alone used to bring back memories of reading Room (by Emma Donoghue). My husband used to be away long hours at work then. We all talk about the wonderful…beautiful…loving ways of children…of the experience of bringing them up……..While being careful about not deriding children and their place in our lives, I think we need to also speak openly about the frustrations, isolation and discomfort that ‘simple’ routines with babies and young children can bring.
My son still plays with kitchen utensils, at 3 yrs; He has never been ok with the car-seat, also; I too scream if I see that he is about to do something potentially harmful to himself……..I think every mother does. I think Sagarika’s story should bring up a mirror to the idyllic notion of motherhood as being this role that is always beautiful, pleasant, soothing and sacred. As a Child Development professional, the literature that I have come across regarding infant care and well-being of the mother suggests the need for support. If this is missing, there are serious risks. It appears that psychiatric troubles are hinged on the availability of help from others in such situations. As I read Sagarika’s story, I could understand almost all the ‘symptoms’ as arising from the lack of support. How easy it is for people to create labels and fix blame on the mother.”
Another warns us thus:
“When we travel to other countries, it is essential for us to be aware of the rules and regulations of that place to protect ourselves and our children”.
Featured Image source: https://www.davidsongalleries.com/artists/modern/kathe-kollwitz/lifetime-impressions/brot-bread/
Text image shared with permission from Ms. Sagarika.