Unless you have been asleep for the last ten days you won’t have escaped the furore and fallout from a front-page article published by The Times on Monday 28 August, outraged that a white five-year old Christian girl had, so it claimed, been placed with a non-English speaking Muslim foster family. We take a look at how the story has unfolded so far – and draw out some of the more subtle issues and what they really mean for fostering.
The Times based its article (Christian child forced into Muslim foster care) on notes taken during contact sessions between the girl and her mother that had been seen by the paper’s chief investigative reporter Andrew Norfolk. According to The Times the notes suggested that the girl had demonstrated considerable distress about the placement, claiming that her cross had been removed by her Muslim foster carer, that the foster family did not speak English and that she was also encouraged to learn Arabic. The outrage and response within and beyond the fostering world has been erupting ever since. As Bradford fostering Tweeter ‘Heroes of the State’ wrote, “This story raises so many issues that, if we weren’t so old and decrepit, we’d do a blog.”
Many did blog on the issue. Among the first to respond was Suddenly Mummy who was unsurprised at the girl’s distress. “No matter how good the ethnic and cultural match there’s no getting away from the fact that being removed from your family and put into foster care is a terrible trauma for the child.”
But it was The Times’ story’s racial overtones that were the deepest cause of concern for her and many, many others. Some expected such an approach from the Daily Mail, which helpfully reprinted the most sensational elements of The Times story (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’) But many were shocked to learn that the story was written by the same reporter responsible for ground-breaking investigation into and uncovering of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham. Ex-colleagues, among them Murad Ahmed, another former Times journalist, expressed shock at the omissions, lack of balance or understanding of how the foster system works in Andrew Norfolk’s piece, but particularly its “openly racist” tone.
The Twitter fury
But it was Martin Barrow, current foster carer and Norfolk’s ex-news editor at The Times who shepherded, via Twitter, the fostering community’s collective outrage against the inaccuracies of the story and the impact it was having on the foster carers and the child involved. His furious and frequent responses, pinpointing each inconsistency and expressing the view from the other side, culminated in a piece he wrote for last weekend’s Sunday Times, saying that The Times article “misses the point and that the real story is a shortage of foster carers”.
Others also used the news story to highlight their issues within fostering. Sarah Anderson, chair of the Foster Care Workers Union acknowledged her significant role in shaping an Observer editorial the following Sunday. “It’s a sad truth that the care of looked-after children tends to surface in the national consciousness only as a result of reports that something has seriously gone wrong…The pressures the foster care system is operating under are rarely accorded the same levels of attention,” the newspaper noted. “The poor conditions many carers face are a product of the no-man’s-land they occupy between quasi-parental volunteers and child professionals.”
The publication of a case management order by family court judge HHJ Sapnara led some to jump upon apparent inconsistencies in The Times’ reporting. “Far from Islam being scarily alien to her, the grandparents of little AB (as she is known to the court) are of Muslim heritage, if non-practising,” wrote The Guardian’s Gaby Hinsliffe. Martin Bashir and Callum May for the BBC pointed to comments from Judge Sapnara that there were no concerns about the girl’s welfare in her foster placement. Tom Pride’s widely retweeted blog article went much further, outlining “ten lies” told by the press and claiming to give the facts.
Tower Hamlets Council, the organisation at the centre of the row, said it was legally unable to say much about the case beyond confirming that the child was placed with an “English speaking family of mixed race” and expressing a constrained disappointment “with the tone of the media reporting”. The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) followed procedure by submitting a complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
Following Judge Sapnara’s publication of the case management order came a groundswell belief that The Times must and should retract some of its article. The Times, however, remained defiant. The Transparency Project provides a narrative summary of the half a dozen articles published mainly by The Times about the issue (which is by no means all of them). The newspaper claimed it was praised by the judge for exposing the council’s failure to place the girl with a culturally matched carer and appears to claim credit for the announcement that the child was to live with their grandmother. (Although Andrew Norfolk later confirmed in an interview on the BBC Asian Network that the move to the grandmother’s care was in no way as a result of the media intervention. He also pointed out that there were two foster placements – and his article raised concerns only about the first one). The only time the newspaper appeared to back down was the removal from its Twitter feed of Tweets inviting readers to get in touch if they knew of children who had been put in a ‘culturally unmatched’ foster placement.
Many observers pointed out that countless Muslim children had been placed with foster carers of a different ethnicity and faith – yet there was no furore over this. The Salford Star, perhaps seeking to provide balance, did find and report on one Muslim father who had been campaigning to get his children back from a non-Muslim placement. He claimed he had been told not to discuss his religion with the children when he had any contact with them. Another alarming response came from the ex chair of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Philips who in a first-person piece published in the Sun likened Tower Hamlets’ treatment of the five-year old as akin to child abuse. Oddly, in the next breath he added that he was, “adamantly opposed to the local authority fixation with finding ethnically matched parents for children in care”.
The facts (again)
It was Suesspicious Minds which provided a robust analysis of the CMO yet still pointed out that the information provided and the clear complexity of the case meant that no real conclusions could be drawn. “Anyone currently saying, ‘This is definitely what happened in this case’ does not know what they are talking about.” The Transparency Project’s third article on the subject which notes that “in the rush to condemn The Times for sloppy reporting, some of the critics have themselves got a little confused or sloppy”. Tom Pride and even the BASW came in for criticism in this respect. Many referred wrongly to the judge’s publication as a “judgement” – the Transparency Project explained what a Court Management Order actually involves.
But what does this media frenzy mean for fostering and for foster carers? We might not learn from the Fostering Network which acknowledges “some of the very important issues the story raised” but captures these in some fairly bland explanations around matching, training and recruitment. In a move that will make many carers put their head in their hands it concludes in well-worn fashion: “As long as you have a spare room, are over 21 and have the skills and experience to meet the needs of children who may have experienced a traumatic start to life, then there’s very little stopping you becoming a foster carer.”
In terms of fostering policy one of the most telling comments came at the end of a Guardian interview with the government’s own fostering stocktake custodian, Sir Martin Narey. After warning it would be disastrous if potential carers were put off fostering and stating that an ethnic or racial match is not as important as people think, the final paragraph was very telling in the context of recent rows about whether foster carers should be tied to one local authority or agency (TWiF 13 April). “Narey said boroughs should look beyond their boundaries for suitable foster carers,” the Guardian noted. And in a move that could shock some local government bodies who are entrenched in their opposition to foster carers crossing local authority boundaries, the paper quoted Sir Martin directly as saying. “In the case of Tower Hamlets there are 30 other boroughs that had carers available. We need to help local authorities look further.”
And finally back to the Transparency Project which points out the conflicting evidence given by the mother and the grandmother over something as seemingly evident as the grandparent’s religion. This pinpoints something that has been largely overlooked elsewhere – the reliance by many to report as truth what people have said, without considering the context or motivations of the person saying it. As both the Transparency Project and Suesspicious Minds note, we don’t know the full details or context of what the child in this case did or didn’t say. We do know that as many as one in three carers will face allegations and that many of these allegations are made by children in their care. As many as 85% of these allegations are unproven. The Times has created a media agenda for an entire week based on what a child might or might not have said and meant in a contact session, and how those words were captured and interpreted. Many responded with equal certainty on their version of the facts. Foster carers’ reputations have fallen and careers have been ruined on the basis of people’s interpretation of what they see as fact. The public and the commentators still have a long way to go before understanding the nuances and complexities of foster care – and the devastating impact that a sentence or two quoted from a child can have on the future of a foster carer.
Photo: Caleb Woods