The facts behind what has become known as the Tower Hamlets case remain unclear. Press reports stated that a five year old girl of Christian heritage had been placed with an extremely conservative Muslim family, encouraged to learn Arabic, made to take off her cross and denied her favourite meal, which contained bacon.
The local authority involved has been heavily critical of the Times, which originally reported the story, accusing it of sensationalism and presenting claims not based in fact. However, the reporter involved, Andrew Norfolk, defended his coverage of the story, whilst insisting that running it was in the public interest, and the judge dealing with the case took the unusual step of publishing the Case Management Order (suitably anonymised) in order to allay some of the gathering concerns and misapprehensions about the situation.
We have no comment to make on the specific handling of these specific circumstances by Tower Hamlets, as the information necessary to form a comprehensive judgement is not, and should not be, in the public domain. In fact, some actions by certain sections of the press, in publishing headlines alongside photographs of people in no way related to the case, were undoubtedly unhelpful, and it is not wholly surprising that the Daily Mail and the Mail Online are now being investigated by Ipso (the newspaper regulator) following complaints about their treatment of this material. Given both the concerning prevalence of Islamophobia, and the desperate shortage of fosters in the UK, demonising Muslim families willing to offer a home to vulnerable children, seems to be about the polar opposite of furthering the public interest.
However, the stance of the Times and Telegraph remains that there were some legitimate questions to be asked and that they undertook appropriate investigations, and it may be that there are some useful lessons which the local authority could learn. Wherever the truth may lie, we hope that the little girl at the centre of the case enjoys a settled future, and that her family, foster family and the professionals involved are able to move on positively from what must have been a very difficult time.
Nevertheless, one statement which is concerning, comes from comments made by Sir Martin Narey, the Government’s official advisor on fostering, as reported in the Telegraph:
“Sir Martin told The Telegraph he will publish a fostering report at the end of the year which will make ethnicity and religion of carers a ‘secondary’ issue. Sir Martin said: “Skin colour and religion do not matter in 2017.”
We are concerned about this statement, as it is certainly not the case that religion does not matter in 2017. Significantly, the Children Act 1989 s1 requires that the court take into account all relevant characteristics of the child when deciding what is in his or her best interests, and it is well established that this includes religion. Children, like everyone else, have a human right to live in accordance with their religious faith or other worldview (Article 9 European Convention of Human Rights and United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 14).
Of course, religious freedoms for children are more complicated than they are for adults, as young people are still in the process of developing their own personal identity and beliefs. From the outset, human beings exist as part of families and communities, and even babies can have religious identity for some purposes. However, at the same time, children have the right to grow into adults capable of making free and informed choices, and also to exercise freedoms in the present in so far as they are able. It goes without saying, these two realities can cause tensions on some occasions, but this certainly does not mean that children are areligious. Furthermore, at a purely practical level, individual children will be familiar with the routine of their home-life, and food, prayers, rituals and dress may all be part of the world as they experience it. In managing the disruption and trauma which surround moving from one context into a new foster placement, preserving as much continuity as possible is important, and the tangible trappings of religion matter immensely, as well as the spiritual and cultural dimensions.
Fortunately, both the legal system and local authorities are well aware of this. Religion does matter, and placing a child in an environment where their religious needs and identity are respected is seen as important. Nevertheless, this does not mean that children always have to be placed with a family which shares the child’s religious identity, as this recent BBC report demonstrates. There are indeed outstanding foster carers doing a commendable job, some of them happen to be religious, and some of them not. Consequently, religion matters and it is important when it comes to making these decisions, but this does not amount to saying that only religiously matched foster-placements are desirable.
Tower Hamlets mayor defends placing Christian girl with Muslim foster carers (Evening Standard-02/09/17)
Council in fostering row hits out at ‘errors’ in Times report (Guardian-30/08/17)
Muslim Fostering Row: Times journalist defends story (Guardian-02/09/17)
The Child AB (The Family Court at East London, Case Management Order No. 7-29/08/17)
Muslim foster carers ‘told Christian girl, five, that Christmas and Easter are stupid and European women are alcoholics after taking away her crucifix and stopping her from eating bacon’ (Daily Mail-29/08/17)
Muslim Fostering Row: How the Times and Mail gave a skewed portrayal (Guardian-01/09/17)
Article 14 UNCRC (Children and Young People’s Commissioner, Scotland)
My Muslim Family and our foster kids (BBC News 29/08/17)