BLOG: Parents often deny that their children are subject to physical and psychological violence – even when confronted with facts and evidence. What do care order cases tell us about these situations and how do decision-makers assess these serious, disturbing, and difficult cases?
Blogpost by Professor Marit Skivenes, Director of Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism.
In Norway, as in many other countries, children´s exposure to violence is a serious societal problem. Although the populous acceptance for corporal punishment in Norway is amongst the lowest in Europe, about 19% of the children have experienced physical violence at least once during their upbringing. Four per cent have been exposed to serious physical violence, which includes that they have either been beaten, kicked, beaten with a fist, or physically attacked in other ways. In addition, there are equal amounts of psychological violence, and children staying in families with partner violence experiencing violence indirectly. The negative consequences for children are massive.
A magnitude of research displays how children´s childhood is severely damaged by the violence they experience, and the long-term adverse consequences on their health, well-being, and relations, are documented in a range of studies. Perhaps the most well-known study is the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study from 1997, documenting how abuse, maltreatment and family violence, but also parental divorce, had a seriously negative impact on children´s adult life. The higher number of adverse experiences, the worse the consequences.
Still, the way towards banning violence against children has been long. Today, 61 countries have banned it – Norway banned in 1987 – and an additional 27 countries are planning to ban it.
Few of the children experiencing violence have their situation brought to the county boards because the child protection system believes it is necessary to move the child from their parents. We have very little information and knowledge about the child protection cases that concern violence.
Expanding our knowledge on care order cases about violence
At the Centre for Research on Discretion and Paternalism, at the University of Bergen, PhD student Audun Løvlie and I have studied care order cases about violence. Close to 100 written County Board decisions about care order cases due to violence have been examined. The ambition is to expand our knowledge about the situation for the children, the families and how the decision-makers assess these serious, disturbing, and difficult cases. I will share three of the findings here.
Although the populous acceptance for corporal punishment in Norway is amongst the lowest in Europe, about 19% of the children have experienced physical violence at least once during their upbringing.
– Marit Skivenes
First, the care order cases show that the children were in exposed situations and in dire need of improved living conditions. In most cases, the children typically experience several types of violence, and as many as one fourth of the children were exposed to both serious physical and serious psychological violence. An example from a case about siblings aged 2, 7, and 9 give an illustration:
The biggest risk factor is associated with violence. [Child 1] and/or [Child 2] have described […] a care situation characterised by constant fear of being beaten, threatened, tugged, and harassed. Both [Children] have repeated in different contexts that mother hit them with a spatula and a folded towel, where the corners were folded in order to [cause] more pain. (From case 2016-MNorway20).
Some describe children´s experience of violence in their home as living in a warzone. A recent meta-synthesis examining qualitative research show that children experience domestic violence as complex, isolating, and enduring. The latter is especially present “(r)egardless of whether children described the violence as being ’subtle and insidious [or] explicit and explosive,’ the unifying theme across children and across studies was that ‘it was always there.’”
Some describe children´s experience of violence in their home as living in a warzone.
– Marit Skivenes
Secondly, parents only rarely fully acknowledged the violence and the impact it has on their children. In one third of the cases, there was only a partial acknowledgement by the parents. In many of the cases, the parents denied the facts and evidence presented. This is a phenomenon I was not sufficiently aware of. However, it is actually not uncommon in child protection. Research on parents in child protection situations, shows similar findings of denial. Furthermore, Løvlie and I also find that in one fifth of the violence cases, parents explain the situation by blaming the child and/or trivialising the abuse, and blaming turns out to also be fairly common in child protection cases.
Thirdly, key considerations for decision-makers are on the consequences of the abuse for the child and their well-being, as well as parents’ abilities to make changes and improvements. Can the home and the family become a safe place for the child? Assessments focus around predictions about children’s future and what is likely to happen if children continue to be exposed to violence and an abusive family setting. These considerations are, of course, closely connected to the assessment of parents’ (and families’) ability to change a situation of abuse and violence. The latter highlights a key feature in social work and in child protection because the potential for change is about removing risks and creating good enough living conditions for the child. However, the potential for a change in these cases are closely related to parents’ denial and blaming of the child, which are statements interpreted as parents’ lack of self-understanding and insight, and thus an important basis for improving the situation is not present.
Løvlie and I also find that in one fifth of the violence cases, parents explain the situation by blaming the child and/or trivialising the abuse, and blaming turns out to also be fairly common in child protection cases.
– Marit Skivenes
Why do parents deny that their children are subjected to violence?
Admittedly it is puzzling that parents are not acknowledging their role in children´s pain and experiences, but perhaps this is a part of the negative spiral of violence. One part of this is that childhood exposure of violence is correlated with adult exposure of violence – both as perpetrators and as victims. Possibly, the parents from the cases we have analysed have a history of childhood misuse and exposure of violence. Another part of violence and abuse is the feelings of shame and guilt. In her PhD thesis from 2016, psychologist Aakvaag, examines violence, revictimization and trauma-related shame and guilt in the Norwegian population, and demonstrates the correlations between violence, shame and guilt. Aakvaag points out that a typical human reaction in relation to shame is the feeling that one has done something wrong, and thus it should be hidden and not spoken about. Perhaps this is a mechanism that shed light on why parents in the violence cases are not acknowledging the violence and abuse the children have reported.
 See https://www.bufdir.no/statistikk_og_analyse/oppvekst/vold_og_overgrep_mot_barn/barn_utsatt_for_vold_i_familien/#heading4704 and Hafstad, G. S., & Augusti, E. M. (red.) (2019). Ungdoms erfaringer med vold og overgrep i oppveksten: En nasjonal undersøkelse av ungdom i alderen 12 til 16 år. (Rapport 4/2019). Oslo: Nasjonalt kunnskapssenter om vold og traumatisk stress.
 See Felitti Vincent J., et al.. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14(4): 245–58.
 Per August 2021, Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children (2021).
 Justifying interventions in Norwegian child protection – an analysis of cases of violence in migrant and non-migrant families by Audun Løvlie og Marit Skivenes to be published in Nordic Journal on Law and Society
 Noble-Carr, D, Moore, T, McArthur, M. (2020). Children’s experiences and needs in relation to domestic and family violence: Findings from a meta-synthesis. Child & Family Social Work. 25: 182– 191. https://doi.org/10.1111/cfs.12645
 Noble-Carr, et al. see note 5.
 Brown, Rebecca and Ward, Harriet. (2014). Cumulative Jeopardy: How Professional Responses to Evidence of Abuse and Neglect Further Jeopardise Children’s Life Chances by Being out of Kilter with Timeframes for Early Childhood Development. Children and Youth Services Review 47: 260-7. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.09.017
 Brown, Rebecca and Ward, Harriet. (2014). Cumulative Jeopardy: How Professional Responses to Evidence of Abuse and Neglect Further Jeopardise Children’s Life Chances by Being out of Kilter with Timeframes for Early Childhood Development.
 Aakvaag, H. F. (2016). Violence, revictimization and trauma-related shame and guilt. An investigation of event characteristics and mental health correlates among violenceexposed men and women from the general population and among young survivors of a terrorist attack. http://urn.nb.no/URN:NBN:no-55399