Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or you’ve taken a year off from the news in the hope that when you come back everything will be okay (good luck with that), you’ll have heard about the child in foster care said to have been mistreated by Muslim foster carers.
The Times (paywall paywall paywall) and Mail have reported on it extensively this week, and most other papers have followed them.
This is the gist of the story – a white English child whose mother is a Christian, has been placed against mother’s wishes with Muslim carers. The child told the mother that they had not spoken English (the press reports were that the carers couldn’t speak English, we know now that this is not correct), that they had told her she couldn’t or shouldn’t celebrate Easter or Christmas, was forbidden from having her favourite meal spaghetti carbonara because it contains ham, had her crucifix taken/ripped off her, and was told that all English women are alcoholics. The child was reported to be distraught by this.
The Press reported that, and had the additional angle that it was wrong for white Christian children to be placed with Muslim carers. The Times published a genuine (but pixelated) photograph of the female foster carer and the child, the Mail used a stock photograph and badly photoshopped in a veil for some reason on the adult female.
Let’s very quickly deal with the first issue – the systemic one. Should ethnic and cultural matches be the priority when placing children – well, sort of. Local Authorities do have duties to take into account the child’s cultural and religious heritage and make sure that those needs are met in foster care. At the same time, the Government brought about law (cough, at the behest of the same Press outlets who are screeching about this) to stop those factors being considered in adoptive placements (that came about because the Press were appalled that white carers were being told they couldn’t adopt non-white children, of whom there was a surfeit – the system had more white carers than white children who needed carers, and more BAME children who needed carers than BAME carers. That’s true of foster carers too).
So whilst a Local Authority will try to match children to foster carers, it isn’t always possible to have an exact match – the amount of carers of particular types doesn’t equate to the amount of children who need such carers. In general, it is more common to find BAME children placed with white carers than the reverse – which is what happened here, but it depends where you are in the country. When I worked in the West Midlands, we did sometimes have to place white children with BAME carers, so it depends on local demographics as well as national ones.
So there is a systemic problem, but it is interesting that the Press have complained about it in two different directions, that white carers should be allowed to have BAME children and that white children shouldn’t be with BAME carers. I think the Press might want to have a bit of a think about that.
Anyway, I’m more interested in the INDIVIDUAL issues.
Easiest question first.
- If the foster carer did this, is that okay?
Absolutely not. Local Authorities and foster carers have a duty to look after children in their care and treat them well. They have a duty to respect a child’s cultural and religious heritage and what is complained of here IF TRUE is appalling. IF TRUE, that person would be unsuitable to foster and would probably be deregistered as a foster carer.
2. Are all foster carers perfect?
No. Foster carers are human beings, and all human beings have flaws and are capable of showing those flaws. Some foster carers have abused children in their care – some much more seriously than these allegations and have gone to prison for it. The Press don’t seem to give those convictions front page stories very often (though cases where foster carers murder children in their care do make the front page). It’s a bit like a plane crash – plane crashes happen, and when they happen it is awful and dreadful and important that people try to learn from how it happened and stop it happening in the future, but you can’t assess whether plane travel is generally safe or generally dangerous by only thinking about the ones that crash. You have to have the context of there being a lot of planes flying every day with no problems. (That doesn’t mean that abuse in foster homes is okay, any more than a plane crash is okay. Just that context is important)
3. So is this a story?
IF TRUE, yes, it is a story. If it isn’t true and mother’s allegations are false, it’s not really a story at all. Person lies in Court is not a news story. People do it all the time. That’s why we need Judges. If everyone who went to Court just told the truth always, we wouldn’t need a Judge and thousands of pieces of paper to work things out.
4. So is it TRUE ?
We don’t know. There’s some stuff that we DO know.
The Court have published the order
From that, we do know some stuff. I’d suggest you read it at the end rather than now, because whilst it might make readers lean one way or the other on whether the story is true or not, the ultimate fact is that we don’t know. We know that mother alleges this stuff, and that the Local Authority say it isn’t true. The Court is gathering the evidence, but nobody has yet got into the witness box and answered questions and the Judge hasn’t decided anything.
If this child has given that account, it MUST have been in a supervised contact setting. So perhaps there is evidence that supports the mother’s allegations – of contact recordings showing that the child said that. Perhaps the contact recordings don’t show any such conversations. We don’t know. The Times certainly didn’t apply to Court for permission to publish an anonymised version of the contact recordings that would support their story – that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t exist, maybe the reporter didn’t know that they could ask. Maybe if they had asked, the Court would have said no. We don’t know.
Anyone who says now that they are SURE the foster carer has done this, is coming to that conclusion when we don’t know any of the facts or evidence. Equally, anyone who says this mother must be lying (because she is this, that and the other) is also jumping to a conclusion when we don’t know any of the facts or evidence. Imagine for a moment this Press report being that a mother claimed the foster carer racially abused her, or that a psychologist made up quotes from her – we might speculate that the mother is bound to be making this up (but in two cases where those things were claimed, the mother was right and tape recording evidence proved it). So don’t assume that either of them MUST be telling the truth. We don’t know.
5. Will we EVER know?
Tricky. The way that we will know whether the evidence, as tested in Court, by witnesses being asked evidence and the documents being considered, is when a judgment is published. That judgment would clearly be in the public interest and I’m sure it will be published. I would then write about it. The Press may, if the Judge decides that the mother’s account was right. They may, if the Judge decides they were all fooled by a single source, publish that with an apology. They may publish a Christoper Booker-esque piece about how the secret family Courts have got this wrong and that they know best. We don’t know.
6. But will there be a judgment?
This is really my reason for contributing on this. The family Courts are paid for by taxpayers. They are spending taxpayers money. They have a job to do in relation to each set of care proceedings they hear. The Court of Appeal has made it clear that they have to answer two questions.
(a) Has this child been significantly harmed or is the child at risk of significant harm with that harm being a result of the parents behaviour being unreasonable (and if not, that’s the end of it)
(b) What orders, if any, should the Court make?
(Many people wrongly conflate b with – decide where the child should live. Although there’s often quite a bit of overlap, the Court is not deciding where the child should live, but what order if any to make)
Now, from reading the order, this mother is undertaking drug tests and alcohol tests, and is also facing criminal charges for something (some of the Press reports specify it, but it isn’t in the order) and the criminal proceedings papers are being produced. I think those things are probably relevant to (a) – it may be proved, or it may not. But whether or not the foster carer did or didn’t do these things doesn’t come into it.
The foster carer isn’t being considered as a permanent carer for the child, so there’s no need to assess her for (b). It is a straight shoot-out between Special Guardianship Order to grandmother (with possibly a string of other orders about placing the child in a foreign country, as that’s her intention) or no order/Supervision Order with the child being with mother. That’s going to hinge on whether the Court considers that mother can provide good enough care for the child. These allegations don’t come into it.
But, surely if the Court decides that mother was wronged about the foster placement, they’d have to put that right by returning the child to her care? No, the Court’s paramount consideration is the child, not mother. But surely, if the Court decides mum lied about these allegations, they couldn’t return the child to her care? No, because the Court’s paramount consideration is the child, not whether mother lied. But surely if mother lied about this, the Court could take that into account as to whether she’s lying about other stuff? Well, not really. The Court have to follow a principle from a case called Lucas – the Court must remind itself that just because a person told lies about A that doesn’t mean that they are lying about B, C or D too – people can tell lies for a number of reasons and lying about one thing, even if you are caught out doesn’t mean you are lying about everything.
SO – I think there is a considerable prospect of the Court not actually litigating this argument at all. If the assessments of mother are that she can provide good enough care, there won’t be a contested final hearing at all. If there is a final hearing about SGO with grandmother versus no order/ Supervision Order with mum, then this aspect doesn’t help the Court make that decision in any way.
It is possible that the Court will deal with it and make findings one way or the other, as a result of the public interest – but it is worth remembering that the Court isn’t a public inquiry – it isn’t there to give me, or you or the Daily Mail answers – it is there to decide what orders to make for the child. If the Court hears evidence about these allegations, they would need to hear from the foster carer (s), the contact supervisor(s) and mother – that probably amounts to adding an extra day to the hearing to satisfy my curiousity. And if the Judge spends an extra day doing this case than another case, another child, has to wait for their decisions.
It’s a bit of a downbeat answer – we may never know from the family Court what really happened.
BUT BUT BUT
What about other Court hearings?
Well, it is theoretically possible that mother might make a claim under the Human Rights Act for damages for these allegations, and then the Court would have to hear evidence and make the decision. Or for damages as a result of the Local Authority failing to comply with their statutory duty to promote and respect the child’s cultural and religious heritage. That sounds a bit thin. Firstly, the claim even if everything is proved is a bit thin for a HRA claim and secondly mother would have to get that litigation funded somehow – which means persuading either the Legal Aid Agency that this is an exceptional case which justifies it or persuading a lawyer to do it for free.
And there isn’t an automatic guidance that all judgments like that are published (I think it would be in this case due to the public interest).
Well, an investigative route would be Fostering Panel. Foster carers do have their registration reviewed, and Fostering Panel can consider revoking registration. They aren’t massively set up for hearing evidence on contentious issues and making determinations as to disputed facts – I also don’t think they’d do a long ‘judgment’ – it would be more likely to be a short decision. And they don’t have to publish that. And even a cunningly-worded FOI request to Tower Hamlets would probably be knocked out on the basis that the foster carer has rights under the Data Protection Act about their sensitive and personal data.
A Serious Case Review? Don’t think it meets the criteria – the child hasn’t been seriously injured.
So either this Judge will go out on a limb to deal with the allegations as part of a contested final hearing and publish a judgment, or we will never know. At this point, I’d say it is 70-30 on us never knowing.
ANYONE CURRENTLY saying “This is definitely what happened in this case” does not know what they are talking about. It is a guess. It might turn out to be a good guess, but it is a guess.