New Delhi: For Sagarika and Anurup Bhattacharya, their Norway nightmare has seemed endless. After many months of uncertainty, Norway now says it is working with a March-end time-frame for the custody row over the Bhattacharyas' two toddlers, placed in foster care by that country's child welfare authorities who say the parents are not fit to bring them up.
The Indian government has told Norway officials that the two Indian children, Aishwarya (1) and Abhigyan (3) are "neither orphans nor Stateless persons, and enjoy the protection of the Indian State." The strong stand follows attempts by Norwegian officials to keep the children there after their visas expire next month.
Sagarika and Anurup Bhattacharya, who live in a town callled Stavanger, have been accused of negligence by child welfare officials; their children were taken from them last May and placed in foster care. In November, a Norway court ruled against the Indian couple. (Read: Norway custody row- Solution by March end?)
The children's visas expire on March 8 and the parents want them to return to India before that. But Norway's Child Welfare authority says it can't take a decision before that. The court hearing can follow only after this decision.
Here are 10 new developments in this complex story:
1) The Norwegian Ambassador to India Ann Ollestad has told NDTV that her country is "working constructively" towards ending the custody row by the end of March. She said that the dialogue between Norway's Child Welfare Service and the children's uncle, Arunabhas Bhattacharya, a dentist based in West Bengal, is "going very well." As a compromise, the Bhattacharyas have suggested that the children's custody be granted to Arunabhas, who has travelled to Norway and is being evaluated by child welfare officials there. He is allowed supervised visits with the children. Norway says the children's interest is of utmost importance.
2) A human rights organisation in Norway has slammed the country's Child Welfare Service for taking away the Bhattacharya children and putting them in foster care. Berit Aarset, who heads Human Rights Alert, Norway, has called it "state kidnapping." She says, "This is not the first time such a thing is happening in Norway ...the legal system favours the Child Welfare Services and they do what they want all the time....quite often when a Norwegian is married to a non-Norwegian they also do the same thing; they also do this to asylum seekers and in almost every case they say one of the parents have a mental problem just to make their case strong ...that is what has happened in the Bhattacharya case too."
Ms Aarset says "The UN has been criticising Norway since 2003 for the fact that too many children are in foster homes and institutions, without the Norwegian government having shown any signs of changing this practice."
3) In Norway, foster families get monthly salaries of 26000 Norwegian Krones, almost 2.5 lakh Indian rupees. They also get paid holidays, allowances for building houses or buying an extra car and pension entitlement. Foster homes also generate extra income and extra jobs for social workers. Stavanger, the city where the Bhattacharyas live, spends 170 million Norwegian Krones on foster care.
4) India is providing consular help to the Indian couple in Norway after the Norwegian authorities sought to extend the Residence Permits of the Bhattacharya children. The Bhattacharyas were informed that child welfare authorities had asked immigration officials to grant temporary resident permits to the children even without the parents' consent. Norwegian law would allow the children to stay on in Norway even if parents don't agree.
5) India has told Norway that Aishwarya and Abhigyan are "neither orphans nor Stateless persons, and enjoy the protection of the Indian State". So any request for extension of the Residence Permit on their behalf should emanate from either the parents or the Indian State. Indian officials have also urged Norway once again to "expedite the process of return of the children to India in view of the humanitarian dimension."
6) The children are still in a foster home. They met their parents after three months on Friday for an hour.
7) The children were taken away from their parents in May last year. The staff at Abhigyan's kindergarten found his behaviour in school disturbing; child welfare representatives then visited the family regularly for five months.
8) They reported to a Norwegian court that Sagarika seemed "clinically depressed", though she says doctors have certified she was not depressed. They also accused her of force-feeding the children. Abhigyan was diagnosed with attachment disorder which is said to be caused by parental neglect.
9) In November last year, a Norwegian court ordered that Abhigyan and Aishwarya would live in a foster home till they turned 18. The court noted that son Abhigyan was diagnosed with attachment disorder; the boy, the court said, reacted if the mother raised her hand, as though she intended to hit him and concluded that he had either been hit before or had seen physical violence between the parents.
10) The Bhattacharyas have, through their months of ordeal, said that "cultural misunderstandings" caused this tale of separation. The Norwegian authorities have categorically denied that cultural differences have played a role in their decision to take the children away. Yet, the court noted as part of its case against the parents that they had an arranged marriage; commonplace in India, not largely understood in the West. Before the Indian government intervened, Norway had refused to consider the option of granting custody of the children to their grandparents or other family members.