Scientific research on removing children from their family

Sverre Kvilhaug, who has practised as a lawyer in Norway, has written a book called. Atskillelse barn og foreldre, which means “Separation children and parents”. In his book, Kvilhaug refers to the large amount of international research that has been done on the long term consequences of separating children from their parents. The results of this research is unambiguous – early separation of children from their parents has severe impact on the child’s mental health. Kvilhaug concludes that separating children from their parents and placing them in institutions should only be done in the most severe cases, like cases where the children are victims of incest or violence.

The results which Kvilhaug refers to, are ignored by Norwegian authorities and experts. They are not being criticised. One only pretends that they do not exist. Kvilhaug’s experience from child protection cases is that the judgement done by the psychologists stopped where they ought to have started: Will the child suffer from being separated from the parents? The psychological experts in child protection cases do not seem to consider the option that moving the children might be harmful. The strange thing is that the same psychologists are quick to state that moving children back to their biological family may be harmful; the children is now emotionally bound to the foster family. Kvilhaug poses the question: When psychological experts ignore research that has fundamental consequenses to their judgement, can we call them experts?

Kvilhaug describes a Norwegian context – how unambiguous research is ignored by Norwegian authorities. But the research is relevant in every country where the authorities want to remove a child from their family – the question is whether the (alleged) shortcomings of the biological parents are grave enough to justify seperating the child from its parents, with the scientifically proven consequences that has.

Before looking at some scientific results, one should think of the common sense aspect of this. Throughout the evolution, being separated from the parents has always meant danger for animals or human beings. It is therefore reasonable to expect that separating children from their parents has negative impact. The reader can also try to imagine the following situation: Imagine that you are 5 or maybe 10 – 12 years old, sitting together with your parents waiting for some strangers from the Child Protection Services who are going to bring you to pepole you have never seen, and whom you are going to live together with. You are used to being protected by your parents, but now they are not able to give you hope. Then the CPS arrives and takes you away. This stress-filled situation is experienced by thousands of children each year.

One of the strong scientific results refered to in Atskillelse barn og foreldre is from a study done by a group of Israeli scientists, O. Agid, B. Shapira, J. Zislin, M, Ritsner, B. Hanin, H. Murad, T. Troudart, M. Bloch, U Heresco-Levy and B. Lerer, presented in Molecular Psychiatry in 1999, and refered to in Mental Health Today. The Israeli scientists conducted a “case control study”, where they looked at the extent of early loss of parents, either because of early death, or because of permanent separation before the child was 17 years old, among patients with serious depression, bipolar disorder and schizophreny. The results were compared with a group of individually matched healthy persons.

The study demonstrated that loss of parents during childhood increased the likelihood of develloping a serious depression as an adult. The significance of the study can be described by the value P = 0,001, which means that the probability that the outcome of the study is based on mere accidents, is 0.001, or 0.1%. An interesting result was that the effect of permanent separation by other rasons than death was more striking than the effect of the loss when the parents died (P = 0.003). The scientists also found a significantly (P = 0.048) larger extent of early loss of parents among the patients with bipolar disorder and among the patients with scisophreny (P = 0.01).

The same scientists also found that in the control group of people without a mental diagnosis, there was a significant correlation between early separation and physical problems.

A group of scientists at the same university, L. Canetti, E. Bachar, O. Bonne, O. Agid, B. Lerer, A. Kaplan De-Nour and Ay Shalev, conducted a new study which was published in 2001. This study confirmed that loss of parents by other reasons than death means a larger risk of develloping mental sufferings than loss by death.

K.S. Kendler, K. Sheth, C.O. Gardner and C.A. Prescott did a study which was published in 2002. They found a significantly larger risk of serious depression after the loss of parents, both as a consequence of death and as a consequence of separation before the age of 17, but the risk lasted much longer when the separation was caused by other reasons than death. They also found a significantly increased risk of alcoholism after separation from the parents, but not after the parents’s death.

Clancy McKenzie seems to have had an important role in focusing on the risks represented by early separation, but there Kvilhaug states that there is a tendency to silence his works. McKenzie states that schizophreny and serious depression has its roots in separation in early childhood, and that a painful separation later in life (of any kind) is a trigger for mental disease. To explain that seemingly unimportant separation in early childhood can have such consequences later in life, he reminds us that for millions of years, early separation from the mother has meant death for all mammals.

In 1980, Dr.McKenzie and Wright did a studt where 60 adult schizophrene people were compared to 60 people without mental diseases. Of 120 persons, 20 had siblings who were less than 18 months younger than them. This meant that they were separated from the mother in about 5 days when the mother was at the hospital to give birth to a new child. Statistically, one should expect that these 20 persons were aproximately evenly distributed in the two groups (if early separation did not have an impact on schizophreny). It turned out that 17 of the 20 persons were in the group of schizophrene people.

Sarnoff Mednick at the University in Los Angeles stated in a letter to Clancy McKenzie that he had been sceptical towards the findings of KcKenzie and Wright, but that his own survey of a Finnish database of more than 6 000 schizophrene people demonstrated a very high statistically significant number of schizophrene people among those with siblings less than two years younger than themselves. Kvilhaug writes that as far as he knows, Mednick’s survey is still unpublished.

This is just a few examples of scientific researches mentioned in Kvilhaug’s book. The conclusion is clear – separating children from thir parents during childhood has severe consequences which must be regarded when the question is whether a child should be removed from the child’s family and placed in an institution or foster home