Let’s stick up for Tower Hamlets amid the foster care affair

by Dave Hill

A full, fair and true account of the short term placing of a five-year-old non-Muslim girl with Muslim foster parents in East London may never emerge into the public domain, and in some respects, of course, that is quite right: it is plain enough that the child and, for that matter, her mother have enough problems without more details of them becoming common knowledge. But there is one aspect of this affair we can already be confident about: that it would not have become such a big a national news story had it not involved Islam and Tower Hamlets.

Throughout this century and before it the East End borough has been the recurring focus of wider anxieties about Muslim inhabitants of Britain and their influence on the country as a whole. That is not simply because a large Muslim minority, primarily of Bengali/Bangladeshi Londoners, lives there but also because controversies centring on them contrast so sharply with a folkloric, imagined East End that still informs potent, post-war English myths.

You don’t have to travel far into the internet backwoods to find laments for a race of chirpy cockney patriots purged by brown-skinned immigrants composed by people who’ve probably never ventured outside Little Sticksville let alone strolled around Stepney or Brick Lane, and who might be surprised to learn quite how many of the lost tribe they mourn were Irish Catholics and Jews. The foster care affair has fed the nastiest side of that nostalgic fantasy, thrilling the usual cranks and cockroaches. But note that claims fundamental to the initial coverage have since been challenged.

Beneath the headline “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”, The Times quoted what it called a “social services supervisor” describing in confidential council reports “the child sobbing and begging not to be returned to the foster carers’ home because ‘they don’t speak English'”.

However, the council said the reporting of the story contained inaccuracies, specifying as an example that “the child was in fact fostered by an English speaking family of mixed race”. And in her published order about the child’s future, the judge in charge of the case recorded that: “The child’s Guardian [officially representing the rights and interests of the child] has undertaken inquiries and visited the child in the current foster carers’ 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.” (page 4, paragraph 10).

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs has been on the radio and, though acknowledging that the council is still looking in to precisely what has occurred, said that what The Times (and later the Daily Mail) had written was “somewhat sensationalist” and that claims those news organisations made such as that the child had, for example, had a crucifix taken from her and been told she couldn’t have meals containing bacon were “from all of our investigations, not based in fact”.

Moreover, the judge’s order also says that the maternal grandparents she has decided – in line with Tower Hamlets’ wishes – will look after the little girl on an interim basis are of Muslim background, albeit no longer practicing the religion. So perhaps being looking after for a few months by members of an observant Muslim household wasn’t quite so alien to the child, described by The Times as “Christian”, as early reports starkly suggested.

We can only hope that the various individuals directly impacted by all this, especially the vulnerable small child who had needed emergency fostering because she was taken in to protective custody by the police, recover from any ill effects. Sadly for Tower Hamlets and its people, the latest damage to its reputation has already been done.

The Times article managed to term it “the scandal-ridden borough” in its second paragraph. Even if the fit between child and foster family in this case was indeed less than ideal, the law of averages suggests that all sorts of foster children with all sorts of backgrounds all over the UK find themselves in the temporary care of adults they do not feel entirely at home with. But add the words “Tower Hamlets” and “Muslim” and, hey, it’s “a story” with reach far beyond the immense complexities of child protection into the febrile and sometimes fetid field of national culture and identity.

It would be daft to pretend that the borough hasn’t been damaged by political turmoil in recent years or that Muslim activism has not been part of that. Nor can it be denied that vicious and illiberal ideologies proclaiming themselves Islamic hold an appeal for some Muslim Londoners in that part of the city. All of this is true. But it is also true that far too much tittle tattle, conspiracy theory and hostile supposition have been presented in the media mainstream as credible possibilities and even fact.

The mayoralties of Lutfur Rahman, brought to an ignominious end by an election court, are the prime recent example. Rahman was not a very good mayor: evasive, obsessed with micro managing his political defences and surrounded by too many angry young men. However, to pick a few examples, claims that his two election wins were secured because of thousands of invalid votes were not borne out by the election court judgment that brought him down; a borough chief executive was not forced out by Rahman for being gay (I know, because the individual in question told me so); and a Muslim businessman who purchased the former Poplar Town Hall from the council during Rahman’s time as mayor and received planning permission to redevelop it has received substantial damages, an apology and costs from the Telegraph for a series of what it concedes were “untrue” articles alleging that the businessman was a willing beneficiary of corruption (they were principally written by Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan).

It has fallen to Mayor Biggs to lead the council’s recovery. In relation to the foster care furore, this has entailed going beyond defending its work in child protection to trying to explain the mosaic-like social ecosystem of his borough, indeed of much of London as a whole, to a national audience. That can be difficult at the best of times: it seems to fair to assume that many non-Londoners would find it hard to imagine that, for instance, a Muslim woman who lived near me in Hackney and always wore a niqab when outside her home was a prized childminder among local white professional women.

Biggs should be praised for his handling of this issue. He has declined to run for cover, sticking up for his staff and his borough’s foster carers as they go about their difficult work in a borough whose past mishaps and present character make it a soft target for too much bad journalism and sewer populism. He is brave, thoughtful, hard-working and as sound as a pound. He deserves London’s support, as does the borough he leads.

1 Comment

  1. I am a Councillor in Tower Hamlets and have read all of the media reports and once again the original reports written by Andrew Norfolk of The Times have been ignored or not read. As a reminder Andrew Norfolk won awards for unveiling the Rotherham sex abuse scandal so he has some credibility as a result.

    His reports were based at least in part on internal Tower Hamlets Council documents given to him by an employee of the Council. They include contact centre reports where the child met the mother in a controlled and supervised environment and were written by Tower Hamlets Council employees based on what the child said. The mother would not have been in a position to coach the child.

    I am still astonished that so many people seem to ignore what the child was saying in these reports ‘A social services supervisor for Tower Hamlets in east London described the child sobbing and begging not to be returned to the foster family ‘ and ‘A Tower Hamlets employee who supervised regular meetings between the child and her family recorded the child’s distress, at the conclusion of each meeting, when she was handed over to the carer.’ some of that distress I am sure was because of the distress of leaving the mother but the reports also seem to indicate distress at returning to the foster parents. As a reminder the UN Convention says this ‘the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’

    There were two foster families not one which the Council very rarely mentions. The language issues were with one not both families. It is not clear which family the guardian visited. The issue is not that they could not speak English but that to quote The Times

    “A social services supervisor for Tower Hamlets in east London described the child sobbing and begging not to be returned to the foster family because “she doesn’t understand the Arabic”. The girl is also understood to have said that she was regularly expected to eat meals on the floor.”

    The accusation is that the home language was Arabic not English.

    It is somehow claimed that because one sets of grandparents were of a Muslim background that it is somehow alright. But the grandparents were not practising so therefore were not actually Muslims. The mother also says they were of Christian heritage. The important point is what the law has to say.
    The Fostering Services (England) Regulations 2011

    Part 4
    11. The registered person in respect of an independent fostering agency must ensure that—
    (a) the welfare of children placed or to be placed with foster parents is safeguarded and promoted at all times, and
    (b) before making any decision affecting a child placed or to be placed with a foster parent
    due consideration is given to the child’s—
    (i) wishes and feelings (having regard to the child’s age and understanding), and
    (ii) religious persuasion, racial origin and cultural and linguistic background.

    The Council has to match fosters parents based on
    Religion – the child was raised as a Christian, the fosters were Muslim
    Race – no information is provided as to the race of the foster carers except that one was mixed race but the child is described as white and has blond hair
    Culture – the following allegations if true would suggest that cultures did not match and Biggs did not categorically deny them
    – Child regularly expected to eat meals on the floor
    – Child encouraged to learn Arabic, child told mother that she needs to ask her social worker if she can learn Arabic
    – “The social services employee heard the child whispering Arabic words to her mother that she was allegedly told must be said aloud to ensure that “when you die you go to heaven”.
    – Both foster families, the women concealed their faces when outside (which The Times observed themselves)
    – Not allowed to eat pork (her birth mother had cooked her Carbonara with pork to take home)
    – Child allegedly told ‘Christmas and Easter are stupid’
    – Child allegedly told ‘European women are stupid and alcoholic’

    The key point is that there are clear laws. The United Nations United Nations – Convention on the Rights of the Child have similar points, these are international norms and not just English law.

    This case started in March 2017 and in April OFSTED failed Tower Hamlets Children’s Services, their report started with these sentences “There are widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children who need help and protection in Tower Hamlets. As a result, too many children remain in situations of actual or potential harm for too long. Insufficient scrutiny by the chief executive, the director of children’s services (DCS) and politicians has meant that they did not know about the extent of the failures to protect children until this inspection.”

    It is why we The Times describe Tower Hamlets as a scandal ridden place

    My colleagues and I will be trying to ascertain the truth of these reports but with the obvious need to protect the identify of all of those involved including the foster carers.

    Tower Hamlets is a fantastic place but it is a place where the needs to appease interest groups and to defend the multi-culturalism agenda seem to outweigh the interests of children but we owe that little girl and others the benefit of an investigation to ensure that all children in the future are fostered by the best possible foster carers who will do their best to minimise the trauma of care rather than as is suggested exacerbating it.

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