This is a very powerful and disturbing case. As Hayden J says, this is a whole new category of child abuse which professionals and Courts are learning about very quickly, it just wasn’t something that had even entered anyone’s thinking two years ago.
London Borough of Tower Hamlets and B 2015
It has a somewhat stellar line up of advocates, indicative of the serious nature of the case. In broad terms, the issue was this :-
Was a 16 year old girl being radicalised to prompt her to travel to Syria and became a “Jihadi Bride”, if so, were the parents to blame in any way, and what should happen to her and her brothers?
In this case, the girl had been caught at the airport trying to catch a plane with that intent – rather like the recent cases before the President that resulted in ankle-tagging. Unlike those cases, where the President was satisfied that there had been no overt or abusive radicalisation of the child, in this case there was plenty of evidence.
14. I have already referred to a very significant amount of what I will for shorthand call ‘radicalising material’ being removed from the household. During the course of this hearing before me I asked Mr. Barnes, on behalf of the Local Authority, to distil the material that had been removed into an easily accessible schedule identifying to whom the material was attributable. The schedule, which has not been disputed, requires to be summarised in detail.
- There were a number of devices attributable to B herself:
(1) A document headed “44 Ways to Support Jihad” with practical suggestions as to the support of terrorist activity;
(2) “The Macan Minority” urging participation in Jihadi activity;
(3) Internet searches relating to terrorist manuals and guides to terror activities. That also included queries as to the response times of the Metropolitan Armed Response Team and the Queen’s Guard;
(4) Internet searches as to the preservation of on-line anonymity, including, as confirmed by a police officer at an earlier hearing, the downloading of software to hide the IP address of the user’s computer when on-line;
(5) A downloaded version of “Mujahid Guide to Surviving in the West”. Possession of that document is, of itself, a serious criminal offence. It gives guides to weapon and bomb making and to “hiding the extremist identity”.
(6) “Miracles in Syria”. This contained information as to how to get to ISIS territory and many photographs of what are referred to as “Smiling corpses”.
I had not understood what that meant, but I have been informed that it involves photographing the corpses of fighters whose faces are set in a smiling repose and said to reveal pleasure at their glimpses of eternal reward
(7) “Hiraj to the Islamic State”. This contained information and advice as to how to avoid airport security. It had particular advice in relation to females intending to travel to ISIS territory via Turkey.
(8) Footage of attacks on Western Forces in the Middle East.
- On one of the siblings devices there was the following:
(1) Numerous articles, some in what are referred to as “glossy magazine format” urging flight to ISIS territory and recommending its “lifestyle”.(2) An edition of Islamic State News showing men being prepared for execution and asserting community support for it.
(3) An edition of Islamic State News showing before and after shots of human executions.
(4) A video of terrorist training.
(5) A video containing images of actual executions and beheadings.
- On another sibling’s devices there were the following:
(1) A number of lectures and video biographies encouraging support for ISIS activities, including videos of attacks upon Western Forces in the Middle East.(2) ‘The Maccan Minority’, seen earlier in B’s own devices, suggesting that files had been shared between the siblings.
(3) A document called “The Constance of Jihad”. This was a five hour lecture on the need to participate in fighting against non-Muslims.
- Finally, from the parent’s own devices:
(1) Lectures encouraging participation in armed attacks on non-Muslims.(2) Issues of Islamic State News showing the same executions as those seen on the devices attributed to one of the siblings, again suggesting file sharing.
(3) Photographs of teenagers holding grenades.
- Reducing the material in this way to this stark list was, at least to my mind, an important exercise. The impact of the material set out in this way is both powerful and alarming. It requires to be stated unambiguously, it is not merely theoretical or gratuitously shocking, it involves information of a practical nature designed to support and to perpetrate terrorist attacks. I have noted already bur reemphasise that it provides advice as to how to avoid airport security, particularly for females. In addition, the videos of beheadings and smiling corpses can only be profoundly damaging, particularly to these very young, and in my judgment, vulnerable individuals
Deep breath. You can see therefore that the material was far beyond a ‘come to syria for a life of glamour’ blandishments that anyone could come across on the internet – there were very strong and graphic images and terrorist manuals. You can also see that the parents’ electronic devices also contained this sort of material.
Importantly, much of this material involved how to conceal extremeist views and that was certainly something which had played out with these parents, who had previously come across as concerned and anxious about their daughter’s actions.
20. It is not uncommon in my experience, which I am confident is shared by the experienced advocates in this case, for adults in public law proceedings or child protection proceedings more generally to seek to deceive social workers. Sometimes it can be successful for protracted periods. They may conceal a drinking habit, substance abuse, or a continued relationship with a violent partner. Usually these come to the surface eventually. I am bound to say I do not recall seeing deception which is so consummately skilful as has been the case here. I have found myself wondering whether some of the material may have educated this family in skilful concealment of underlying beliefs and activities.
- The parents’ joint statements require revisiting. Thus:
“We are a very strong family unit and we are doing our very best to help prevent such a situation from reoccurring. We are keeping extremely close eyes on B and trying to be encouraging of her moving without ridiculing her for her actions to the extent that this incident forever haunts and affects her day to day living. I, the mother, am particularly sensitive of how we manage the situation which we view as very serious due to my work…
I understand how to empathise and assist those in need of support through open questioning techniques and motivational encouragement, and have done this with B at great length since the incident to help understand what went wrong. We had thought that we were nearing a stage of putting the incident behind us, having worked together as a family, convening weekly family discussions and opening up about how to move on…”
“The police officer ‘x’ offered a piece of technology costing £79 which allows complete monitoring of the computers in the house. The instructions were followed and it was bought and a friend who is technologically minded (which neither if us are) installed it for us. The children are not aware of it. We completely understand the police and Social Service’s concerns, but we don’t want any intervention to further impact our family lives for the unforeseeable future. The risk in our minds is not high at present of B leaving the UK, particularly given that all of our passports are being held by our solicitors. We would agree with whatever measures are deemed necessary to prevent risk to B and following the explanation given at the initial child protection conference have agreed, or already carried out, the protective tasks itemised in the assessment report.”
They were fulsome too in their praise for the social worker:
“The new social worker explained her role and again seemed very sensitive to the need to limit and time her visits according to B’s studies. We have readily accepted the recommendations of the conference. We were impressed by the thoughtful and specific thought all there gave B. She did not feel like she was lumped together with other girls for no clear reason. The professionals at the meeting voiced confusion themselves about an initial child protection conference being held whilst the child is warded. The Chair expressed concern that it seemed a decision had been made that there must be a child protection done before the conference. In fact following the open and frank discussion at the conference, all professionals voted unanimously for a time limited Child in Need plan. We were very relieved, and repeat, we will grab with open arms practical and genuine offers of help in getting past this terrible event provided we think they will help. We also repeat we are so grateful to those who stopped S getting to Turkey.”
- Evaluating those passages alongside the material that was discovered in this household reveals that much of what was said was in fact an elaborate and sophisticated succession of lies.
It was a very difficult situation for the Court to deal with. There had been limited opportunity for professionals to talk to the boys. It is worth noting here that Hayden J acknowledges that Courts are often obliged to take social workers to task for poor practice, but here the work that the social worker had done was to be commended. Hayden J felt that there was no alternative but to remove the girl, B. He makes a comparison with the nature of the abuse she was suffering which is a strong and powerful one. I will leave it to others to consider whether they think it is too strong or about right.
The decision for the boys was much harder.
- The police found it necessary, as a precaution, to limit professional access to this family. The need for that, to my mind, was self-evident. It has, however, meant that I have limited information into the lives of the male children.
- The Local Authority apply to remove each of the children from the household; not just B but the boys too. So corrosive and insidious are the beliefs in this household, it is argued, so pervasive is the nature of the emotional abuse, so complete is the resistance to intervention, and so total the lack of co-operation, that the emotional safety of the boys, the Local Authority says, cannot be assured. I have some sympathy for that view. Nonetheless, in exchanges with Mr. Barnes on behalf of the Local Authority the following, to my mind, important facts have emerged. Firstly, it is conspicuous that radicalised material was not found on the boys’ devices. Secondly, the boys, through a variety of sporting interests, have a much wider integration into society more generally and, on my, as yet, superficial assessment, a healthier range of interests. Between sport and study there is, I suspect, little room in their lives for radicalised interests. Thirdly, it was one of the boys who first sounded the alarm about his sister’s flight. The exact account of that, like everything else this family says, must now be viewed with very great caution, but I strongly suspect there is a core truth that it was the action of one of the brothers that foiled B’s flight to Syria. Fourthly, two of the older boys will be starting 6th Form education at college very soon, and accordingly they will be more exposed to professional scrutiny.
- I will require a thorough intense and comprehensive social work assessment of the boys’ circumstances. I will then be able better to decide whether their situation in this household is sustainable or not. Until I have the information I am not prepared to sanction their removal. It may or may not be necessary in the future. The balance of risk, it seems to me is, significantly different in the cases of the boys, at least at this stage. The Guardian supports such a course. Though I hope she will forgive me for saying so, I have not placed very much weight on her view. She was only appointed a few days ago. She has not had any opportunity to meet the children at all. She has an inevitably incomplete knowledge of the background of the case, and virtually no understanding of the wider issues, having, as she told me, never been involved in a case of this nature before. She is in an entirely invidious position. I am sympathetic to her and I do not intend these simple statements of facts to be construed by her in any way as a criticism. They are not.
- The social worker appointed in this case, by contrast, has in my assessment
a deep, well informed and intelligent understanding of the issues. She has been working this case and with this family now for some time. It is in the nature of the proceedings that come before this court, in particular, that the actions of social workers often fall to be scrutinised and are from time to time found to be wanting and deprecated in judgments. The opposite situation arises here. This social worker has, in my judgment, made an outstanding contribution to the case. All those who have encountered her, the lawyers, the police, the guardians, have been impressed both by the extent of her knowledge of this family and by her professionalism. She has formed a very important, and in my judgment, highly effective link between social work and police operations. She has had to absorb and re-analyse her work in a dramatically changing landscape. She gave evidence. She told me she had forged a strong, open, working relationship with B, as she thought. She had been convinced, and she is not, I suspect, unhealthily sceptical, that she had achieved, in effect, a professional result with B.
- It is obvious listening to her that despite everything that has happened, she has some affection for B and her professional concern remains. Now, she told me, B will not sit near her or talk to her. The social worker is not deterred. She continues to work to try to engage B in a meaningful dialogue. As she gave evidence, I took the view that this social worker, though saddened by the deception on a personal level, had merely girded her loins and resolved to try to re-forge the relationship. I am not able to identify her by name in this judgment, though I should like to have done so. To do so would only risk compromising the anonymity of the children. I have not lightly rejected her social work assessment in relation to the boys. Her understanding of B is considerable, as I have emphasised, but I have the strong sense, which to her credit she readily acknowledged, that her knowledge of and assessment of the boys was far from complete. As I have said, the balance of risk, at least for the present, is different.
- I have no hesitation in concluding that B has been subjected to serious emotional harm, and, at the very least, continues to be at risk of such in her parent’s care. I can see no way in which her psychological, emotional and intellectual integrity can be protected by her remaining in this household. The farrago of sophisticated dishonesty displayed by her parents makes such a placement entirely unsustainable.
- I return to the comparator of sexual abuse. If it were sexual risk that were here being contemplated, I do not believe that any professional would advocate such a placement for a moment. The violation contemplated here is not to the body but it is to the mind. It is every bit as insidious, and I do not say that lightly. It involves harm of similar magnitude and complexion.
- I approach the Local Authority’s proposals by considering B’s needs at this juncture. I am required to do so by Section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989. What she needs, I find, is to be provided with an opportunity in which she can, in a peaceful and safe situation, be afforded the chance for her strong and lively mind to reassert its own independence. An environment in which there are the kind of vile images that I have described and the extreme polemic I have outlined, can only be deleterious to her emotional welfare. I hope she can be provided with an opportunity where her thoughts might turn to healthier and
I hope happier issues. I have no doubt, as has been impressed upon me by her counsel, that she will find separation from her parents, particularly her siblings, to be distressing, though I note she was prepared to leave them to go to Syria. I do not doubt that the social worker will struggle to find a placement which meets the full panoply of her welfare needs which has been emphasised on behalf of the guardian, but I entirely see why the Local Authority plans or proposals are, of necessity, only general in outline and, to some extent, inevitably inchoate. However, I am entirely satisfied that this social worker will make every effort to ensure the best possible option is achieved for B. That is the Local Authority’s responsibility.
I note that the parents in this case have been charged with an offence,
On 12th August the parents and other siblings were arrested on suspicion of “possessing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.” That is an offence contrary to s.58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and carries a substantial custodial sentence.
What this case really shows is just how sophisticated the grooming process for radicalising young people and families can be, and that over and above the grooming and information about going to Syria and practical arrangements there is sophisticated material and advice on deceiving professionals and allaying professional suspicion. These things represent completely new challenges and Tower Hamlets (amongst some other authorities) have got really valuable insights and experiences to share with other agencies who might encounter these issues. I hope that there are some joined up discussions to take place about the best way to share these insights and new found expertise.