One of Norway’s top child-protection policy experts, Jo Erik Brøyn, was sentenced to prison under the country’s child pornography laws. His arrest further discredits Norway’s Child Protection Services.
A child psychiatrist and top child protection expert, 56-year-old Jo Erik Brøyn, who in 2010 became the single father to two Indian surrogate babies, has been sentenced to nearly two years’ jail under Norway’s child pornography laws.
Brøyn was found guilty of possessing and sharing an enormous quantity of material—about 200,000 pictures and 4,000 hours of video—showing children subjected to brutal sexual abuse. The indictment against Brøyn reads: “Pictures and videos show sexual abuse committed by adults against children, sexual acts between children, and children performing sexual acts on themselves.”
This case is symptomatic of the Norwegian child protection services (CPS) system (known as “Barnevernet”) and our authorities’ attitude to it. It demonstrates the double standards of what people in authority do and say in relation to the strict legislation regarding children that they themselves promote and through which they exercise power.
The Norwegian police were notified of Brøyn’s possession of this material as far back as 2014, from the Swiss police. However, Brøyn was not stopped from continuing as an expert and child psychiatrist in the CPS system for several years thereafter. He has been downloading abuse material from 1997.
He has for many years been a very active, supporting participant in the CPS system carrying out evaluations of parents from whom the CPS intends to remove children. He has recommended “emergency” taking into care of children, and placing them at secret addresses, never to be allowed back to their parents but committed to foster care until they are adults. And make no mistake about it: all this against families where little or no wrong or criminal has been committed against the children, such as the internationally well-known case of the Bodnariu children who were taken because the parents slapped the children for being naughty.
When Brøyn was arrested more than a year ago, his children were at first allowed to be placed with his sister. This is considerably more lenient than is usual in CPS, where there is great resistance to kinship placement. Before Brøyn was released from custody, his children were moved by the CPS to non-relatives. However, the County Board (an administrative committee which functions as the first instance decision-maker in care proceedings), decided that they should be returned to Brøyn, so they have been back with him since the summer of 2017. Again, the liberal attitude of a section of the authorities, here regarding a confessed pedophile father living alone with his children, is somewhat unusual. In open court Brøyn stated that he has pedophile leanings, being stimulated by sexual pictures and films of boys.
Norway prides itself on being egalitarian. But it is hard to see any trace of that in the indulgence towards psychiatrist Brøyn, who has made a very good living out of the CPS system, acting as one of the professional experts devastating so many families who try to cope in much more humble and hard-pressed circumstances than his own. Rather, there seems maybe to have been a certain hesitation in the County Board to subject one of “their own” to the treatment usually meted out to families who possess little social and professional prestige?
Brøyn even used his children as an excuse to ask for a sentence of community service so that he could avoid jail and separation from the children. His request stands in considerable contrast to the long-lasting separation which he has been instrumental in imposing on families in CPS cases. As an alternative arrangement, Brøyn suggested that if he had to serve in prison, his two siblings could take care of one child each. Our thoughts go to the thousands of cases in which the CPS and their psychologists have insisted not only on depriving children of their biological parents, but have rejected out of hand entirely capable carers such as grandparents, uncles and aunts, grown-up siblings, cousins, or close friends of the family, from being considered as foster parents. Indian readers will recall the resistance to allowing the children in the Bhattacharya case to be placed with their extended family until the Indian government intervened.
In court Brøyn has made excuses saying he has not passed the abuse pictures of children on to others, only looked at them himself, which according to him made sure that they could harm nobody. Save the Children does not agree. They have worked for several years to have politicians and the media stop using the term “child pornography” and call them “abuse pictures” instead. “To be in possession of such pictures contributes to maintaining a market which presupposes abuse of children. For the child, it is a new instance of abuse that the pictures are spread around. It is also serious because possession of abusive material can work to normalise abuse of children”, says Line Hegna, director of communications in Norwegian Save the Children. Nor is it possible for someone taking part in the activities of some web-facilities which Brøyn has made use of, to prevent pictures from being passed on to others.
According to the police lawyer, Brøyn had “largely” confessed to being guilty of the charges. But this confession of guilt does not seem to have impressed the Court, which said:
“The accused has taken exception to the most serious material, which he claims not to have downloaded consciously. The Court finds, however, that the accused to a certain extent trivialises his own actions. He has explained his erotic interest for young boys to be associated with his homosexual tendency. The accused appears remorseful, but reflection seems to have come only after he was caught out. In court he has explained that he has considered himself not to be harming children since he does not take part in the production, nor participates actively together with others, and that the pictures exist anyway. He views this differently today after the exposure of the case. The Court finds it serious for somebody with his special expertise on children to express that only now has it struck him that he has subjected these children to grave violation. The court furthermore sees it as serious that a professional who is supposed to be the “protector” of children and young people has placed his own satisfaction and desires first in this manner.
His confession came only after the police confiscated the material and has been of insignificant value for the clarification of the case.”
Brøyn was a working member of the national “Child Expert Commission” (CEC) right up to the time the police charged him, when it was compelled to exclude him. The CEC is a committee of psychological experts, each appointed by the Norwegian Ministry of Children and Equality to evaluate the psychological reports of other child experts in cases relating to children.
Brøyn himself seems to understand nothing of the implications of this case for his work as a child psychiatrist with access to children in a position of trust and authority. He has stated in court: “My sexual predisposition has led me into this situation.” This is not the case. It is no crime in Norway to be homosexual, and mere feelings and desires are of course not punishable. It is Brøyn’s actions that have led him into the present situation, not his sexual predisposition.
In connection with the court case against Brøyn this year, once again an expert has been appointed to assess the possible consequences to his own two children. The judgment quotes this expert’s opinion:
“The expert considers X to have the ability to regulate his own feelings and actions so that the children in a situation of care are not exposed to offensive sexual experiences beyond the ordinary risk in a home with adults having a sexual life. The expert points out that X, despite time and focus spent on downloading, does not seem to have neglected his tasks of care for the children. It is not considered likely that this practice will change in a continued care situation. Rather, this expert considers that the consequences of father’s illegal downloading activity will place a burden on the children in that he may be given a prison sentence and that the CPS has intervened in the family.”
So this publicly appointed psychological expert’s evaluation of the situation of his/her fellow expert’s children is that the father is trustworthy, not likely to be any danger to them although they will shortly be of an age which has been the preferred age group for his picture and video searches, and that it is the penal system and the CPS which will be harmful to them? These observations are interesting, since the army of psychological professionals employed by the CPS normally hold the interference of the CPS and themselves into families to be a trivial burden, or no burden at all, on children and parents alike “if the care is found on investigation to be good”. Likewise, they normally hold the removal of children from their parents’ care to be utterly good for the children if the psychological experts and the social workers “think” so.
It seems an example of how evaluations and prognoses in the CPS sector are frequently self-serving in the extreme.
Brøyn’s medical license was suspended after he was arrested back in January 2017. The suspension of his medical license and his exclusion from the CEC imply official recognition that such work must be prohibited to someone carrying on pedophile actions. If nothing further is done about the system which has allowed him to go on, what does that say about the entire system of “child expertise”?
The CEC should over a year ago have started going back to every case in which Brøyn has taken part at any time. The CEC should go carefully into the question of whether Brøyn has been involved in cases of, for example, young boys in institutions or in other contexts which may have given him access to them when they were not protected by their parents.
Have no experts in the CEC or other colleagues been aware that Brøyn has kept up nefarious activities relating to children for 20 years? He has in several periods been going to therapy himself, relating to his problems with sexuality and his pedophile leanings. In the middle of it all, he has got for himself two children by surrogacy because he, as he has declared, does not relate sexually to women. He does so to children, however. Has nobody in the professional set been in the know?
In Norway, child policy is heavily influenced and guided by the thinking of psychologists and psychiatrists, who are respected and relied on a great deal.
Psychological professionals are often thought, because of their training, to be particularly astute in penetrating into people’s minds. Yet it appears that nobody on the CEC, a body of 14 éminences grises from the field, has known or suspected, regarding this colleague working close to them and regarding a major issue in their work.
The alternative is that some of Brøyn’s colleagues have indeed positively known or suspected what he was doing and kept silent. If so, these professionals are themselves guilty of breaking the law, having done nothing to inform the police.
Either way the silence of the professional psycho-social milieu stands in some contrast to the propaganda overflowing in Norway from those quarters in our media daily, urging especially people in public employ to report to the CPS any suspicion, however vague, of something worrying concerning the care of children.
Unfortunately so far there is no sign of any question from the sections of government in charge—the Ministry of Children and Equality, the Ministry of Health and Care Services or the CEC—regarding whether this case has a bearing on the general way the CPS is regulated and run, or regarding the reliability and scientific basis of the work of the CEC.
The court judgement and testimony referred to is publicly available and the translations into English are by the authors.
Jan Simonsen was a Member of Parliament in Norway for 16 years, and has been a member of the Council of Europe’s Committee for Legal Affairs and Human Rights
Marianne Haslev Skånland is a Professor Emeritus from the University of Bergen in Norway
The Global Child Rights and Wrongs series is published in collaboration with www.saveyourchildren.in, lawyer Suranya Aiyar’s website critiquing the role of governments and NGOs in child-related policy