On 28th August 2017 The Times published a story about a white Christian  child ‘forced’ into a (presumably) brown skinned Muslim family

The prominent placement of this report on the front page with its eerie image of the little white girl being led away by a shadowy figure in full veil caused immediate unease to many, encapsulated in this comment by Jack Monroe on Twitter

So – whats the story?

Andrew Norfolk the Chief Investigator Reporter set out his concerns which I summarise here:

  • A white Christian child taken from family and ‘forced’ to live with ‘niqab wearing foster carer
  • where she was ‘allegedly’ ‘encouraged’ to learn Arabic
  • the foster placements were made against the wishes of the girl’s family
  • by the ‘scandal ridden borough of Tower Hamlets’
  • in a ‘confidential local authority report’ nonetheless seen by the Times the child is described by a social work supervisor as ‘sobbing and begging not to be returned’ as her carers did not speak English
  • the child was distressed as she had to remove her necklace, which had a Christian cross, was not allowed to eat bacon and was told that Christmas and Easter were ‘stupid’ and European women were stupid alcoholics.
  • the child has had two placements with Muslim families; her first foster carer wore the niqab, the second the burka – which indicates that she is likely to be ‘contemptuous of Western values’

The article goes on to say:

To protect the child, The Times has chosen not to identify her or the unusual circumstances that led to her being taken into care earlier this year.

This is a very odd thing to say. The Times does not have a ‘choice’ about whether or not it names vulnerable children who are subject to care proceedings (which I assume this child was/is given the reference to word ‘forced’ regarding her placement for the last six months). The Times is prohibited by law from identifying children who are still in care proceedings, which this child may well be – see section 97 of the Children Act 1989.  I would expect The Times to be aware of this simple fact; that it appears unaware is a matter of serous concern.

For further information on what newspapers may or may not publish about care proceedings see our guidance note here.

However, this isn’t my main cause of concern about this article. What so seriously shocked me (and many others) was the tone of the article, the language used and its clear narrative agenda that here we had a little girl deliberately subsumed into a Muslim family who denied her an identity and are attempting to force upon her their general contempt for Western society and its values.

I will start by saying that OF COURSE – if what has happened here is that a little girl is distressed and crying because she is placed with a family who don’t speak English and who make derogatory comments about her own racial and cultural background then this is NOT A GOOD PLACEMENT. It should not have been made, it should come to a swift end and these foster carers should not be permitted to foster children without some further rigorous re-training.

But lets look at the language used here. ‘Forced’, ‘allegedly’ ‘scandal ridden borough’ ‘contemptuous of western values’. Its not hard to discern the narrative of this piece and what the Times wants you to think about foster placements in general and this foster placement in particular.

The article comments

One aspect of the Tower Hamlets placement revealed today by The Times has, however, amazed experienced carers and the heads of fostering agencies who were contacted.
For an English local authority to choose to place a five-year-old child whose first language is English with a family who at home regularly converse in a different language would, they say, be staggering. It would also be unforgivably irresponsible.

However, the Times can apparently find no named individual prepared to articulate their ‘amazement’ at this state of affairs. And I note the interesting shift from the earlier comment that the child is distressed because her carers ‘don’t speak English’ to the recognition of the more likely situation that her carers speak another language in addition to English and may well use that language in their own home.

I might also add it seems a bit odd that despite not speaking English to the little girl the family were able to attempt to indoctrinate her into thinking Christmas and Easter were ‘stupid’. Possibly they did this with visual aids? Or the little girl was able in very short space of time to master sufficient Arabic to allow the brain washing to be effective.

It is indeed a concern, as the Times notes, that 84% of approved foster carers are white which reflects the racial identity of only 77% of children in foster care. Various ‘recruitment drives’ to increase the number of ‘non white’ foster carers do not appear to have improved the statistics.

This is likely to cause serious problems in areas like Tower Hamlets where only 31% of the population are white, compared to a national average of 80% across the country. Therefore, non whilte children in areas such as Tower Hamlets may be more likely to end up in foster placements which don’t reflect their racial identities or the religious persuasions of their parents.

Legitimate concerns used as fear mongering click bait?

I agree it is curious that Tower Hamlets were not apparently able to find a foster placement which was a better ‘match’ for this particular child’s culture and identity. I agree it would be appalling if she was placed with a family that did not speak any English.

However, I simply don’t have enough information in the Times article to be able to conclude that this is what did in fact happen or what informed this child’s placement.

What I do have however is a front page article which appears to be a depressing example of an attempt to ferment suspicion about Muslims who are ‘contemptuous’ of the West and who are looking to brain wash little white Christian children.

This article is not merely a now depressingly familiar example of the typical ‘social work bashing’ pieces I have now come to expect from our tabloids (but I remain surprised and shocked that the Times is now joining in). We have seen the danger of this kind of journalism time and time again – its impact on recruitment and retention of social workers, its impact on politicians and policy makers – see Professor Ray Jones ‘The Story of Baby P’ if you want to delve further into that murky world.

But this article goes further than that. Its not merely ‘bashing’ social workers on ‘allegations’ and quotes from reports not cited, ‘amazement’ from anonymous sources – it has some horrible echoes of the propaganda of for example, Nazi Germany in the 1930s, which set out to demonise an entire religion. A common method promoted by Goebbels to encourage fear and hatred of the Jews was to portray them in crude cartoon caricatures as ‘snatchers’ of blue eyed Aryan children.

What better way to encourage people to hate but to tell them their children are at risk from a shadowy group of people whose religion and culture are very different ?

I have often complained that the ‘debate’ around the child protection system is inadequate. I did not dare to contemplate that it might actually turn into part of a propaganda campaign to encourage hatred of a religion.   No doubt the coming months and years will continue to show me just how much worse it’s going to get.

EDIT – update on events since 28th August 2017

There has been an enormous amount of comment about this issue and the publication of the court order  following a hearing on 29th August 2017 before HHJ Sapnara in the Family Court at East London.

The Times have further commented that they were ‘praised’ by HHJ Sapnara for highlighting the issues in their original report. This interpretation of the Judge’s comments does not appear to be supported by her actual order which sets out a recitation of the facts before the court. I note the Judge’s comments in particular here:

For the avoidance of doubt, the Court makes it clear that the decision to approve the new care arrangements for the child to live with the grandmother under an interim care order is as a result of the application of the relevant law to the evidence now available to the court and not as a result of any influence arising out of media reports.

The recitation of facts in the judgment sets out a clear timeline:

  • The child was first taken into care as an emergency following police intervention; her first foster placement was thus an emergency one and she had a further foster placement over the summer to allow the first carer to go on holiday
  • The child has been subject to an interim care order since 10th March 2017
  • There is no clarity about who is her father
  • Her mother is not safe to have unsupervised contact with her, owing to concerns about the mother’ use of drugs and alcohol
  • the mother raised concern about the foster placement and wanted the child placed with the maternal grandmother but at no time has the mother made any application to the court to seek change of foster placement
  • The Local authority proposed a change of care plan on 15th August 2017 to move the child to her grandmother’s
  • the maternal grandmother has now been assessed as a safe and suitable carer and the child will move to her care. (Section 23  of the Children Act 1989 states that a child who is subject to a Care Order (or Interim Care Order) can only be placed out of local authority care – for example, with a parent – in accordance with specific regulations. The relevant regulations are The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 – note para 24 concerning temporary approval of relative, friend or other person connected with the child).

Most importantly is this:

The child’s Guardian has undertaken enquiries and visited the child in the current foster carer’s home and spoken to the child alone. The Guardian has no concerns as to the child’s welfare and she reports that the child is settled and well cared for by the foster carer

And – most intriguingly of all, given the clear anti Muslim slant of the Times original piece:

Documents including the assessment of the maternal grandparents state that they are of a Muslim background but are non practising. The child’s mother says they are of Christian heritage.

The Times might like to consider that its possible to be a blue eyed Muslim – as for example the religious make up of the Albanian population shows. 

Of course, matters of concern remain about these proceedings. Given the clear statutory requirements for care proceedings to conclude within 26 weeks, this case has already been in train for approximately 23 weeks and doesn’t seem close to a final determination. This may of course be explained by the fact that two men are identified as possible fathers to this child and there is clearly an international element to the case as the grandmother expresses a wish to return to her country of origin. Further, it is not explained why it has taken from March to August to approve the grandmother as as suitable carer; again there could be many explanations for this, including the mother not being forthcoming with her mother’s details, or the grandmother not being physically present in the country. I don’t know – it would  be good to have clarity about this.

A very serious matter of concern is that The Times journalist was initially refused entry to the hearing on 29th August 2017 and was only allowed in after intervention from the Judge. This should not have happened and suggests that we still have a way to go in promoting and understanding the need for transparency in family court proceedings, so long as we can keep the child’s’ identity protected from wider and unhelpful publication.

But these concerns must also be weighed against the legitimate serious concerns about the whole tone and motivation of the initial Times report  which sparked –  as they must have known it must – an enormous amount of similarly dubious manufactured outrage, based on not merely little understanding of the actual facts, but lack of interest in either establishing or commenting upon them.

Most concerning of all is to see this ‘story’ picked up by Breitbart News, an openly fascist ‘news’ outlet, together with the predictable whipping up of  some MP’s ill- informed ‘outrage’ and demands for ‘inquiries’.

Of course, there has been an enormous amount of thoughtful and well informed comment  on social media and elsewhere which I commend to you:

And note the response of Mayor John Biggs

The questions The Times didn’t ask

Many commentators have noted with understandable frustration that the common plight of Muslim brown skinned children who are placed in foster homes that do not reflect either their religious or racial identities goes unremarked and unchampioned by any national newspaper.

Further, the outrage that this child was removed from her family and placed with ‘extremist Muslims’ is not balanced by any discussion of why it wasn’t safe for this child to be with her mother and equally the intriguing fact that this child’s religious identity is clearly not as straightforwardly ‘Christian’ as the Times would like us to believe.

I note with sadness that the near universal response of those replying to me and unhappy that I did not simply believe everything the Times said, was to accuse me of either wishing to hide child abuse or actively promote it.

The quality of our debate about these issues really, really matters. Because the quality of the debate informs how policy makers understand a perceived ‘reality’ and what funds in turn are directed to recruiting, training and retaining foster carers.

Without trained professional foster carers able to offer a safe home to this little girl – where would she have gone? What would have happened to her? Does it really matter if her foster carers had a different skin colour or a different religion, provided they kept her safe for a short time while her grandmother was assessed?

That The Times ignores these questions and instead seems determined to wilfully mispreport the facts of the case in front of them to support a ‘story’ of racial and religious intolerance, is a matter of profound sadness to me. But the ramifications of this go considerably wider than my own personal reactions and have grave implications for us all.