Immigration and the care of children: A commentary on ‘Nightmare in Norway’

“In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice.”

Charles Dickens

Child ‘protection’

Bringing up the young is a responsibility that all living species take seriously, and adults often place themselves in perilous situations to save their young. Although human parenting is far more complex because it is culturally guided, we share the motivation to raise our offspring to the best of our abilities to ensure that they are productive members of society. Despite this, there are times when situations are difficult, either man-made or natural. Under such conditions, children are perhaps the most vulnerable. To protect children from harm is an important objective of society and there are numerous local, national and global policies in place to facilitate this “protection”.

At the global level, the Care for Child Development package of UNICEF[1] is an important case in point. The document opens with the following statement: “Globally over 200 million children do not reach their developmental potential in the first 5 years of life because they live in poverty, and have poor health services, nutrition and psycho-social care. These disadvantaged children do poorly in school and subsequently have low incomes, high fertility, high criminality, and provide poor care for their own children.” The automatic assumption of the correlations between poverty, health status, nutrition and care, and the outcomes of high fertility, high criminality and poor child care is something we wish to debate here. Such an approach extends injustice towards families living with poverty as we have argued in an earlier blogpost[2] and also masks the difficulties that children have in wealthier homes, as Luthar has repeatedly argued. Firstly, not all people in a country are poor, secondly, and most importantly, poverty does not automatically make people abusive or criminal! Furthermore, just being well-off does not automatically imply that one is free of all difficulties despite the fact that one does not have to contend with lack of resources and purchasing power.

Moving Populations and Third Culture Kids

Third culture kids face several problems when they move. Precisely because immigrants tend to move from poorer countries to richer ones, there is an underlying assumption that they must have been living in disadvantaged conditions and therefore “suffering from” all the inadequacies that tend to cluster around the global understanding of economic inequality. If a country is perceived as being “poor”, the features of poverty envelop everyone emerging from that region when they move. The stereotyping is quick and automatic. Even in terminology, we tend to label moving people as immigrants when the migration is one direction and as expatriates if it happens in reverse. The economic angle of migration is an undeniable fact in the ways in which a person, a family or a child is seen by the natives. The expression ‘alien’ favoured by Americans is a case in point.

Child care practices as a fundamental right

An important question that arises from the preceding post is whether a parent, family, or community has a right to bring up their children in their own way within a broad range of ‘acceptable practices’. Since there is adequate anthropological evidence to explain cultural differences in childcare practices, there is no one method that can claim to be the perfect formula for raising children. Social scientists have also established that ecological, economic and social circumstances determine methods of parenting. Our argument is that before levelling accusations of abuse on the part of parent, such a claim must be established beyond reasonable doubt, accounting for the differences based on cultural variation. Otherwise, child protection services, originally conceived as guardians of human rights, become perpetrators of the very crimes that they are authorised to prevent. We received several comments from our readers and experts regarding Sagarika’s story.

One of our readers, Shweta Goyal comments: “Very interesting read. I have been following this news for a while. It is a relief to know the kids are back with the mother. Child raising practice in Western countries is diametrically opposite to India. And it makes for a very uncomfortable conversation with the paediatrician. They frown at the idea of co-sleeping, the unstructured way we raise our kids. They want everything by the book which is crazy. It puts unrealistic expectations on the mother and that’s why so many of them stop working after kids are born here. My mom used to teach me while she was cooking. Playing around the mother in the kitchen was a normal thing to do. If the mother cannot multi-task how would she work, raise a kid and have a life? The least society can do is stop judging a mother. No mother anywhere in the world, if sober, would do anything to hurt her child.”

After reading the post, almost all our readers agreed that the family was violated, their basic rights and especially the rights of the children to be with their parents and the parents’ right to privacy were violated by the CPS. The video recordings, the insistence on staying on after a sleepless night, the labelling of the mother and most importantly, the separation of the children from the parents, were all seen as acts that were in violation. If the roles were reversed and such an incident had happened with a Western family in a Southern nation, there would have been a hue and cry over barbaric practices and kidnapping by the State. It is an economic issue more than anything else, some of our audience expressed.

An eminent educationist Vimala Ramachandran writes: “Very distressing indeed. Every society has its own practices and imposing a Norwegian perspective on South Asian couple is shocking. This is a violation of basic human rights.” Whereas activist Suranya Aiyar argues that “Norway should apologise to the mother! It has been five years now that she and her children are living happily together. Norway should acknowledge its mistake in this case and take efforts to ensure they are not repeated with other families”.

Other comments: “Super read! And an eye opener for every parent! The story brings both delight and apprehensions of being a parent in a different culture….are we really ready to talk about childcare as a basic right and articulate cultural identity an integral component of human rights?!!!”

“Can’t even imagine what she would have gone through. I wonder whether the people employed in those CWS have ever worked with children, and if they have any knowledge about different cultures and their functioning.”

“There was nothing unusual about Sagarika, I am like that too”

Several of our readers and experts commented that the instances marked as potentially abusive in the previous post are commonplace and familiar ways of raising children. In fact, one person mentions that this could have easily “been one of us”. Adding further “One time my sister was in Singapore with her husband and little daughter, who was difficult when she was younger and would cry over every little thing. One day she was howling in the shower at the hotel where they were staying and the hotel management along with security personnel, used the master key to just walk in into their hotel room without knocking to check! They found the mother struggling with her daughter trying to bathe her while she resisted, and we shudder to think what they would have done had the father been with the child. When they saw the situation, they retreated”.

Another reader remarks that: “I have done each of these things……..Sleeping with my child, letting kids play in the kitchen, feeding with my hand, using warning or threat to stop a behavior, yelling, all seems perfectly normal even in stable marriages”.

From one of our experts quoted in the last blog: “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. 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.”

In the care of children, it is the cultural meaning attributed to an action that is key here. Feeding a child with the hand for instance, is seen as an affectionate act in Indian homes, and one of the additional and equally important objectives of doing so is so as not to waste food. It is not meant to make the child more dependent and unable to eat on his or her own for a longer duration. Cultural meaning systems are key to our membership of social groups and these have to be considered before sitting on judgement on any cultural practice.

 When we move we must inform ourselves about cultural differences

Except under emergencies, most people plan their travel from one place to another. Just as we learn about rules for participation in the local community like identification papers, transportation, employment, school enrolment, health care and other services, it is critical for people to be aware of local rules related to children’s care, health and well-being. Once the rules and regulations are known, then a family can make choices about how they will proceed in the care and education of their children. These decisions are not always easy, as our next post will demonstrate. What combination of values will be finally adopted is a matter of nuanced negotiation; some practices will have to be let go of, new ones may need to be learned, just in the way in which any new parent anywhere deals with different ways of bringing up children and choosing between various options available for their care. The fact that there is even a remote possibility that children could be removed from the home is something every parent needs to know about, immigrant or otherwise.

Undeniably, this is a matter that emerges more prominently when there is economic disparity. Encounters are much more likely to gain attention when the family is relatively poor in comparison with others around them. Additionally, if there are ethnic, religious and cultural differences, the greater the difference, the more likely the misunderstandings. Wealth provides protection through several affordances, and the same applies to immigrants.

Thus, if a family has decided to move, it is worth their while to be aware of local procedures for their own comfort and well-being and the protection of their children. We note also, that when the move is in the reverse direction, there is no such demand placed on people. For instance, in a study of Danish expatriates in India, whether in the welfare sector or Diplomatic corps, there was no equivalent pressure on families to “adjust” to the local culture. In fact, the Danish mission in India had ensured that the families and children would have a protective circle within which they were expected to live, sometimes becoming more luxurious in terms of domestic assistance than in Denmark[3]. The important thing to note here is that the wealthier you are as a nation, the greater right you seem to have to raise your kids your way, and even carry a sense of pride in cultural practices as being “better” or even the “best”.

Formal assistance for immigrants

We would like to raise the issue of formal assistance to immigrant families. Several services already exist to assist people to adjust better. The assistance available to international students entering University is a case in point. Most Universities have an orientation programmes planned for students regarding social life and public services available in the local area. Students are also supported to better understand cultural messages and local expressions. Companies regularly posting people to different parts of the world also have some sessions for their employees prior to the move. Yet, the care of children is sadly missing from most of these discussions and something that needs to be urgently addressed.

In Dubai, for instance, there are relocation experts who assist immigrants with settling-in in the new place. Having interacted with one of them, Pooja says that these services relate primarily to searching for residential options and educational and other services, but they have little or no idea about cultural practices and family life. This is a potential group that could in fact be very helpful for family matters as well. Far greater assistance is available from ‘virtual cultural groups’ on social networking sites which provide valuable information and assistance for new immigrants.

“Since I live as an immigrant/expatriate Indian in Dubai, I have noticed many nuances even among the Indians I meet. For instance, how long one has lived in the country is an important marker of how much the person would know, and therefore become a potential ‘mentor’ for a newcomer. If people discover that they have moved around the same time, they are peers, and plans to explore the place together can be hatched.”

We need to plan and prepare for the entry of culture in these discussions. Along with being prepared for the move, it is also essential to have diplomatic discussions with other governments in order to ensure that there is no wrongful separation of children from their parents. Perhaps these strategies can prevent such instances from happening. Sagarika’s story has ended well, but this may not always be the case, and we need to take every possible action to prevent the forceful removal of children from their parents except when there is no room for doubt.




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