Award 2017 Nominee
Hans Petter Aass
Read in original language
Stavanger, August 2014. Night has fallen. A 15-year-old girl sends Aftenbladet an email. Ida lives in a child welfare service institution, waiting for forced placement in Indre Troms. She claims she led quite a normal life, until the Child Welfare Service took her into their care six months ago. Her life was then turned 2 upside down. She tells of unbridled use of force by personnel and police. She retaliated by breaking windows, threatening, selfharming. She’d also set an institution alight. Reporter Thomas Ergo begins investigating the girl’s claims. But Ida can’t endure the wait.
Anonymous regards ØYGARDEN, WEDNESDAY 4TH JUNE, 2014: “I’m going to set fire to the house. Just you wait and see.” She claims she had warned them several times. It wasn’t her who had asked to be put in this shithole far out in the mouth of the fjord. Cooperation, the caseworker had said on the phone. The only thing that would make things better for Ida was cooperation. But she was going away now. She’d set fire to the house if breaking windows didn’t help. She was 15, had a scar on her back, crusted blood on her knuckles and a wounded soul; dreaming of being just an ordinary girl. A girl who could sit quietly on a sofa with her mother and watch films, eat crisps and be free. A girl who could walk out of the door without people from the institution following her. She’d warned them. She’d do everything to get away. Absolutely everything. “I don’t give a shit if I die,” she’d said.
3 STAVANGER, AUGUST 2014. I knew nothing about the fire in the coastal community of Øygarden. There are so many fires. A new email was in my inbox when I got to work one Tuesday two months later. “STRUGGLING BECAUSE I’M NOT BEING HEARD BY THE CHILD WELFARE SERVICE,” was in the subject line. It was sent at 01:53. I sighed. Parents in deep despair or former child welfare service children asking us to write about their battle against the child welfare service contact the editorial department regularly. We chose to investigate a few of the cases more closely. Most of them quickly ended up in the bin. Investigating them didn’t automatically mean that they made it into the paper. We rang back and said that we couldn’t take the story further, mostly. There could be many reasons. The case was too complicated. Allegations couldn’t be verified. The story did not belong in public. We didn’t have adequate resources to go into the matter, even though it was disturbing. Checking out a child welfare services case often means giving somebody hope, only to disappoint them. Desperation, sobbing, yelling, silence was on the other end of the line. They were phone conversations in which I tried to be sympathetic and professional. “HI, I’M A 16-YEAR-OLD GIRL. I’ve been in the Child Welfare Service’s care for 7 months and am now going to move to my 7th place. The Child Welfare Service isn’t listening to me. I demand an intense investigation of the Child Welfare Service. Police who have cooperated with the Child Welfare Service have also often used aids such as handcuffs, where you’re put in handcuffs chained to your leg. They’re not allowed to use these on a 16-year-old girl. I need help to be heard by the Child Welfare Service and it’s gone too far. I’d appreciate people reading this. Greetings, Anonymous.” I read the email several times. Then I replied. Could we have a discreet chat? I got a call from an unknown number ten days later. It was her. 4 Ida explained that she now lived in an acute care institution in Stavanger under strict conditions. She came from Karmøy, would turn 16 in a few weeks. “Does the Child Welfare Service know you’re calling me?”. “No. And I’m not allowed to leave here by myself. And I have to return the mobile at 16:00.” I looked at the clock. We had just 20 minutes. “Should I tell my whole story now?” She seemed gladdened. “We probably won’t manage that,” I said. “But perhaps you can start?” Ida’s view from the institution in Øygarden. Photo: Jarle Aasland “I don’t want to hurt anyone”
ØYGARDEN, WEDNESDAY 4TH JULY. She hadn’t planned to set fire to the institution that evening. She was just in a bad mood and tired after not having eaten or slept properly for several days. Now she was sitting in her room, a white-painted garret on the first floor of a house she hated. 5 She drew out the black plastic sack from under the bed, fished out the six pack she’d stolen from the shop, and felt the cider trickle down her throat. She grabbed a bottle of perfume on impulse and threw it. Threw it as hard as she could towards the window. It hurtled through the glass pane. Shards rained down on the ground one floor below. Then she heard footsteps on the stairs. She had punched her fist right through the same window once, and had to be taken to the emergency outpatients’ clinic to have it put in plaster. She’d thrown the PC through the pane another time; a lamp the third, and a bedside table the fourth. She’d broken all of the windows in the house, perhaps, since arriving at the end of April. And she’d done that either with her fist of what she had to hand. They’d once nailed a chipboard plate in front of the window and the daylight disappeared for a longer while. They shouted to her. Steps on the stairs. They were on their way up. She pulled out a bag from under the bed. There was the fish knife she’d got hold of some days earlier lying in it. About 20 cm, a black shaft, stickers on top; a bit of rust or old fish blood on the blade. They stood in the hallway looking at her. “What is that, Ida?” they asked. “Do you see this knife?” she said, and looked at them. She had long hair then. Large brown eyes. She was slim and tall, almost 1.80. She was pretty. She’d actually once walked along a catwalk at a fashion show to applause. Pictures of her from the spring of 2014 showed her smiling warmly. Now she just felt cold and calm. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. Can’t you please go downstairs?” That’s how she remembers the exchange of words. Both child welfare service workers backed down the stairs. Ida remembers the man’s expression. She’d never seen him like that before. He seemed scared. She threw a couple of cider cans at them. The roles 6 were reversed. Suddenly she had the power to control what was going to happen. That was actually a good feeling. She stood in her girl’s room that was soon going to be transformed to embers and ashes, and took out the lighter she’d hidden away. House rules forbade lighters. “I thought that “OK, they’re not listening”. So I have to do something. Then I set fire to the institution.” The County Governor only considers implementing an inquiry a year and a half after the fire in Øygarden, and following a long series of serious incidents connected to Ida. She stuffed the duvet under the bed, lit fires in several places and made sure that the flames grabbed a hold. Then she went down to the ground floor. She didn’t see the two employees and assumed that they’d locked themselves in the office. 7 “I’m putting the fire extinguisher here, outside the door,” she shouted. She set one of the jackets alight on the row of hooks in the hallway. She made sure it caught fire. The fire alarm wailed. She went out.
IT WAS A NICE SUMMER’S EVENING, scattered clouds, warm. The girl who wanted to be an ordinary girl couldn’t remember having stopped outside the garage, picking up a huge stone, throwing it through the rear window of the estate car belonging to the institution. She passed the county road and clawed her way up a rocky crag between the houses in the small housing estate in Oen. She looked down upon the house where she’d lived for about a month, apart from the five days that she’d spent in the town’s adolescent psychiatric facility. It looked like a completely ordinary home in an idyllic small cove. A white-painted house in ‘80s style. A garden with a lawn, hedges, vegetation. A garage with antlers above the door. A trampoline. But everyone in the neighbourhood knew. Perhaps they didn’t know that it was an institution with two teenage girls on forced placement. But they certainly knew that it was a child welfare institution. And it was the most desolate place that 15-year-old Ida had ever experienced until then. “Do you know what I’ve done, Mum?” She said while speaking on the phone that thick, grey-blue smoke billowed out of the broken window. She cried and sniffled while she paced to and fro on the mountain. Then she rang her lawyer and confessed to him too. Fire engines, police cars, ambulances, and TV2 drew up in front of the house. She stood behind a bush to watch. The smoke, the blue lights, the wailing alarm, the firefighters who were working hectically, all the neighbours standing round and watching. She remembered that she suddenly felt like she was one of them, astonished by what she had done. The police officers were armed with pistols and had dogs on leashes with them. Somebody suddenly pointed towards the hill, pointed at her. Then they came towards her, the policemen and dogs. Ida ran along the mountain and through the heather, undergrowth, and houses. The sea on one side; the archipelago on the other. She ran into the scant housing estate, heard them calling her name while she looked for hiding places and escape routes. She ran into a garden where a box was, which she 8 opened. Some cushions were in the box, but there was room for her too. She crept into in, shut the lid, and it got dark. They weren’t more than five metres away, perhaps, when she opened the lid ajar. She looked right at the policemen and dogs. They were so close. But they didn’t see her. And went on. Why hadn’t she taken the longboard with her? She could have skated towards town then. She walked to the bus shelter down the road, but no buses were running. She stood leaning against the back of the shelter, didn’t know what she should do, when she heard someone shouting to her. It was Robin Dale Oen. The neighbour who ran a youth activity centre. She’d said hello to him at the weekend. He seemed on the level and had said that she could join in on what she wanted. She’d quite like to paddle a canoe. “You’re more than welcome,” he’d said. “Don’t be scared, Ida,” he said now. She sat in the bus shelter and told him what had happened. Robin thought it best that she came with him to talk to the police. One of the police cars passed by, screeched to a halt, and reversed in their direction at full speed. She ran behind the bus shelter again but got no further; her path blocked by hedges and bushes. Robin walked calmly after her, held her. The rest was like a thick fog. The aggressive shouting. Pistols, back against the hedge. Shields. The knife that rubbed against the inside of the trouser lining. The barking dogs. One policewoman who shouted: “I won’t let go of the dog if you stand still.” After a while, she recognised a new voice. She’d med Geir the policeman twice before. He once found her in the middle of the road, at the bottom of a hill. She’d fallen flat on her face off her long board and had fainted. He’d gone out to the institution one night because of trouble, had sat down and talked with her. Then she began to explain, and he had all the time in the world. 9 Geir was speaking with her again now; just talking calmly, asking her if she could look him in the eyes, didn’t stop before she lifted her gaze. The smoke spread over the evening sky and, according to the report that police officer Geir Fjelstad wrote later, Ida had said: “This actually isn’t me.”
Ida’s life in 28 minutes
STAVANGER, FRIDAY 22ND AUGUST. She had 20 minutes left before the phone would be confiscated. “When were you taken away from your mother?” I heard she was leafing through the papers. “14th January 2014.” “14th January this year? But that’s just seven months ago. Have you been in institutions for seven months?” “Yes. That’s why I want to raise this. I’m being moved from pillar to post, and it irritates me.” She was soon 16 and had become an expert at summing up her life story for adults who had little time. She’d grown up with her mother in Haugesund, and didn’t know who her father was. When Ida was 11, her mother had taken her with her to an African country. They lived there for three years. They moved to Karmøy in the summer of 2013. “Everything went fine,” said Ida. “Then I was going to text my friend. But I sent it to the wrong number. It went to a teacher instead. Personal things were in it. Then the Child Welfare Service came and picked me up at school and put me in an emergency home on Stord.” “Something serious must have been in that text?” “I wrote that I’d taken Valium. And one personal thing: that I was raped in Africa. But it wasn’t Mum’s fault,” she hurried to say. “Mum tried to set limits.” The way in which Ida told the story was that everything painful in her life had begun in January 2014, when the Child Welfare Service was standing 10 on her doorstep. She’d been at school before that day and her marks were satisfactory. She played football and handball, had friends, contact with the family, and a home. She’d never got in touch with police or tried drugs. “I was a right-minded girl that did many activities,” she said, sounding like an adult viewing herself from the outside in. Everything was turned upside down some months after the Child Welfare Service took charge of her care. She had been moved from institution to institution, had dropped out of school, had almost no contact with her mother or family, had no friends or leisure activities, had debuted with drugs, and there’d been a lot of nonsense with the police. She was regularly in court to fight the Child Welfare Service’s decision: a care order. Emergency placement. Enforced placement. She and her mother lost each time. FACTS: A CARE ORDER The last was that the Child Welfare Service’s had decided to forcibly place her at an institution in Indre Troms following the fire at Øygarden. She was to be there under forced placement until the following summer; alone under supervision by personnel 24 hours a day. Her mother refused. Ida refused. The case was appealed to the County Social Welfare Board. The decision would fall next month, in September. Everyone asked her to wait and see. Everyone asked her to be patient. But Ida was soon 16 and fed up of waiting. FACTS: THE COUNTY SOCIAL WELFARE BOARD She was extremely unhappy at the emergency centre in Stavanger, where she’d lived since the fire. Youths in Norway were never meant to sit and wait patiently in emergency institutions for three and a half months. “I just want people to see what the Child Welfare Service is doing,” said Ida. Her voice was like a song. She seemed right-minded and likeable. I couldn’t manage to make myself believe that the girl at the other end of the line had set a house alight out of pure evil. “I’ve got all the papers. You can read them.” 11 I answered neither yes nor no. She hung up, photographed the case documents with her mobile, emailed them to me, and gave them her phone. Eight minutes past the deadline.
“I was a happy girl … fuck the night watch”
STAVANGER, JUNE-SEPTEMBER. We were located in the same city, but in realities which hardly intersected. I still hadn’t decided whether to investigate Ida’s case. I read the papers, an extremely limited excerpt from the entire caseload, I later realised, and travelled to see her lawyer in Haugesund to discuss the case. I lived my standard life seven kilometres away, and imagined that Ida was sitting in her room in anticipation of the County Social Welfare Board’s decision. It wasn’t until several months later that I was allowed to read the journal’s descriptions of broken panes, swallowed glass shards, of a girl who could be calm by day, but who at night began walking restlessly in the corridors before escaping unhesitatingly and ending up in the police’s arrest van or, if she got away, going to Burger King on Torget in the centre of town. Sitting down beside the window, looking at the nightlife, and dreaming of slipping into the crowd. She wanted to go into town one Saturday; never mind what the institution’s lights-out time rules said. She roamed back and forth and threatened to burn the house down, and they knew that she might be capable of it. “What would have happened if I hadn’t had a knife on me?” she asked. “Then we’d have to search you,” they answered. But she refused to let them do it. They called the police. She threw the lighter on the floor, taking a carpet knife out instead and fiddled with it, before she handed it over. They searched her room and found a razorblade under the bed. Then they asked her to get some sleep. She began to throw rubbish out of the window the same evening. She set off the fire alarm by stuffing paper underneath the electric wall-mounted radiator and wrapping a duvet around it. She blocked the bathroom sink up with paper. Water ran all over the floor. She was taken to have a serious chat. A scuffle between her and the staff arose. According to them, who were the only ones describing these events afterwards, it happened because Ida threatened 12 them and tried to kick one of them. They put her on the floor twice. She began breathing strangely after the second time, so they drove her to the emergency outpatients’ clinic where an x-ray examination showed that she’d swallowed something. On the x-ray picture, it looked as though she’d swallowed some jewellery. It was not until after personnel first returned to the institution that they noticed all the tagging. The mirror and wall in her bathroom were full of it. Fuck the night watch, you deserve to die, and I’ll make sure of that. Pay close attention to what’s happening behind you. I was a happy girl at my mother’s. I miss her. A new chance would be good. Yearning. My life is fucked. I don’t give a shit about the rest of it. My life will never be good. Please. Give me one more chance. SHE WAS SUBJECTED TO 26 FORCED INTERVENTION MEASURES during the course of the 16 weeks at the Stavanger emergency centre. Ten of these took place in situations of acute danger where she was restrained, ideally, or put on the floor. They refused to let her go anywhere without personnel for extended periods, she was isolated in a separate flat, or refused the use of a mobile. There was breaking institution windows, and her speciality: swallowing glass shards. One day, personnel found her in the bathroom. She was holding a tool in her hand suited to ending it, and she said: “My life is ruined.” 13 The seemingly ordinary-looking house near the mouth of the fjord was closed down as a child welfare institution after the fire. Shown here during restoration.
WHY DID SHE SWALLOW GLASS SHARDS? She was at the emergency outpatients’ clinic in Stavanger 12 times during the autumn of 2014. She was admitted to hospital five times, twice at the child and adolescent psychiatric outpatients’ clinic. She underwent x-rays – or CT scans – eight times, usually after having swallowed glass, but a carpet knife and other objects too. She told hospital psychologists that she struggled in relation to staff putting her on the floor and placing her in the institution’s sluice flat. She ended up there when she lashed out, resisted rules and the like. One psychologist wrote in the hospital journal: “She felt confined with personnel in these situations and had frequent flashbacks from traumas, something which made her desperate, at risk of 14 wanting to force her way out to get away from highly unpleasant feelings. These episodes often ended with lash outs and swallowing glass shards, according to Ida.” The psychologist asked for a meeting with Stavanger emergency centre several times. The request was allegedly turn down. She rang the centre eight times on 22nd September, without anyone answering. It wasn’t possible to leave a message either, she noted in the journal. She got through by phone on Wednesday 8th October. She was informed that Ida had been moved to Northern Norway. The psychologist sat down and wrote a final entry about the young patient. “The undersigned asked for permission on several occasions to come out to the emergency centre to discuss the situation and guide personnel in relation to safeguarding Ida’s mental health. But the centre turned this down each time. Several instances, including a head of department, pointed out that they didn’t require guidance and this was unnecessary. When the undersigned pointed out that this was important both for Ida’s health and for us to be able to do our job, this was plainly turned down, nonetheless. In October 2014, we were told that Ida had been moved to another part of the country.”
Rapporteurs on Ida
That year, 14,495 children and youths in Norway were placed away from their own homes. Slightly more than 1,300 of them were put in a child welfare institution. Ida was a thin pile of paper on the tip-off shelf behind my office chair. I had a lot of other things to do. She had to wait. A couple of weeks passed before I realised that she had been moved to Indre Troms at the end of September. A long time later, I read how Stavanger emergency centre had praised her in their final report for being a resourceful, positive, and fun girl. The institution’s management apologised that she had been at the emergency centre for far too long. Three and a half months. Conclusion: The stay had been harmful for her. The final report from Øygarden, the institution she almost burned to the ground, described many of the same problems. But there was one 15 important difference: The Øygarden report contained no self-criticism. If one read the Øygarden report and many of the case documents that the municipal lawyer on Karmøy had sent to the County Social Welfare Board, it was almost as though a monster had taken shape: The institution in Øygarden had called the police for assistance handling Ida 16 times in April and May. Reconstructing the institution after the fire would take six months and cost a million kroner. The institution wrote that Ida’s behaviour had been so extreme, that police had seen it necessary to use both pepper spray and handcuffs despite reinforcements. The only reason for her not ending up in a solitary confinement cell in Bergen was that a police lawyer had put their foot down and said that this was no place for a 15-year-old. Instead, they’d placed her in seclusion, isolated her at another institution. She’d broken almost all of the house’s windows, some of them several times. She’d threatened staff with glass shards, and had said that she would kill employees and their children. “The girl can be perceived as being extremely calculating when she issues the threats, and both police and personnel consider none of the threats to be made in the heat of the moment,” states the final report from Øygarden. She certainly had “many positive interests and skills”. But she had not managed to “make use of these resources”. Her behaviour was “destructive for herself and her surroundings”. While Stavanger emergency centre accepted self-criticism on behalf of the Child Welfare Service, the management at the institute at Øygarden formulated themselves in the following way: “Ida’s expression was so extreme, that the unit did not see itself as capable of safeguarding her youth to the degree necessary for her development.”
The toilet floor
INDRE TROMS/STAVANGER, SUNDAY 19TH OCTOBER. “Hi Thomas! I wonder if you think my going to the media with my case might help me?” 16 It was Sunday. I discovered the email late in the evening. But I’d made up my mind. I was going to ring her during the week, tell her that I wanted to delve into her story. Why? Ida was exposed to massive coercion and use of force. But she’d also done the most horrible things. Everything had happened in less than a year in the care of the Child Welfare Service. What makes a 15-year-old girl set an institution alight? Why does she suddenly begin breaking windows and threatening the lives of staff? Had Ida been some sort of ticking time-bomb that just had to explode in the summer of 2014? Was she so damaged following neglect that this just had to happen? Or was it what Ida claimed? Had the Child Welfare Service provoked a type of behaviour that Ida did not recognise as being hers? What type of child welfare service was this, then? Why did the Child Welfare Service and the Police see it necessary to use force and coercion? Could it have been avoided? And what was it like for a teenager to be forcibly placed in an institution? These were questions about Ida. But they were also fundamental. They were about a universe that most of us will never know anything about. These were questions that I wanted to find the answers to.
BUT SHE GOT NO ANSWER from me that Sunday. I exist in a world where one day more, or one day less did not matter. It was a completely different world to Ida’s. That same day, she tried to take her life, according to the journals that I subsequently read. When she awoke the next day, Monday 20th October, she apparently felt more optimistic. She was driven to school in Bardufoss, 40 minutes away. During the course of the day, she left the classroom to go to the toilet. There she swallowed several tablets of medication that she was allegedly given by another pupil at the school. I went to work, got a coffee; thought that I would ring her soon. Ida sent her mother a text, said goodbye, and passed out on the toilet floor.