In a strongly-worded rebuke, Britain’s press regulator has ruled that The Times newspaper “distorted” its coverage of a five-year-old Christian girl who was placed with Muslim foster carers.
The coverage attracted much criticism, for careless reporting, of trading on “Muslim baiting” and of portraying a clash of civilisations. I am more concerned about the effect of such reporting on social workers and foster carers.
Already, Muslim carers are not coming forward in sufficient numbers. The scaremongering of this row could make things worse: it could further discourage Muslims from coming forward to become foster carers. Nobody wants to take on a complex and difficult job only to face accusations of imposing their beliefs on vulnerable children.
This little girl’s story first appeared in late August 2017, when The Times carried a front page story about the girl, saying she’d been “forced” to live with Burka-clad, non-English speaking Muslim foster carers. The article said her foster parents insisted she learn Arabic, removed her crucifix necklace and dismissed her faith as “silly”.
Tower Hamlets council stated in response that the girl was from a family that had a non-practising Muslim background and that due to the unavailability of a culturally-matched placement she was placed in the temporary care of a mixed-race family. In early October, during a hearing about the case in east London, it was revealed that the girl – who was subsequently placed with her non-practising Muslim grandmother – had a “warm relationship” with her foster carers and that she was “missing them”.
Subsequently, the redacted version of a report by Tower Hamlets council showed that although the girl’s case was complicated, it was nowhere near that reported by The Times. After Tower Hamlets complained, the Independent Press Standards Organisation ruled that the newspaper’s coverage was completely distorted. The Times published the ruling on its front page on April 25.
Don’t make foster carers’ jobs any harder
My fear is about the long-term impact of this type of journalism on the lives and futures of the most vulnerable children in British society. Such scaremongering harms social work professionals, fails foster carers and makes their already difficult jobs much harder. Social workers are already over-burdened by layers of red tape which is fuelled by a desire to “watch their backs”. This distracts from the only purpose of children’s social work: to prioritise the needs of the child above all else. We cannot afford to make their already difficult jobs any harder.
From my ongoing research on the journeys of Muslim children through the British care system, my colleagues and I know that these children wait the longest to be placed in long-term, secure and loving foster placements and often have to be moved many times.
Social workers try to match children with homes that have a similar cultural heritage to their own. But if this isn’t possible – given the national shortage of foster carers – they may be placed in homes that have a different heritage. In either case, foster carers are trained to meet children’s needs. They are then supervised by a legion of social workers who ensure that this is done.
Listen to the child
All foster carers are expected to meet the cultural and religious needs of the children who are placed with them. In our research, a Christian foster carer looking after two unaccompanied Muslim children who were seeking asylum spoke about buying halal food and seeking advice on religious practices from other Muslims, so that she could meet the needs of “her boys”. A Muslim foster carer looking after a Christian child spoke about celebrating Christmas so that the child’s faith needs were met.
Data shows that 82% of looked-after children in 2016-17 were above the age of five and 62% were over ten. By the age of five and certainly for teenagers, children’s identities have already been shaped by their life experiences and by the social contexts they were bought up in. If religion or a lack of it has been part of their lives, this will shape how they see themselves and want to live their lives. Best social work practice demands that before placing a child with a family and throughout the placement, professionals should hear and acknowledge their opinions on ethnicity, faith and belief.
In another case, a teenage Muslim woman who was taken into care a year ago told me about how her younger brothers were placed in Sikh and Hindu homes while she was placed in a Muslim home. While all three children were cared for, her brothers were lonely and sad on Muslim festivals, whereas she could celebrate with her foster family. The children were also sad to be separated from each other. They raised this with social workers and although she said it took more than a year and threats that they would run away, all three children are now placed together in a Muslim home.
In the care system, nothing is rosy or utopian. It cannot be. Vulnerable children with backgrounds of abuse, violence and, in the case of unaccompanied children seeking asylum, treacherous travel, are taken away from their homes to new homes that promise safety, security and normality.
In looking after these children, social work and foster care should be among the most respected and honoured of professions. Society must scrutinise it but also have more faith in the care system.