Whilst the case of a Christian toddler forced to live with a Muslim family in England has reignited the Far Right and caused uproar worldwide, a much bigger and more important story is being missed. It's a story about a broken system, one which routinely fails children and which fights to stay alive through financial incentives.
There can be no excuse for sending a vulnerable child into an environment where they feel scared and alone. Leaked social work reports confirmed that the toddler had sobbed and begged not to be returned to the family after being told to remove her cross and prevented from eating spaghetti Carbonara because it had pork in it. The child was recorded as being deeply distressed and unable to understand the family, who spoke Arabic.
The family's actions have understandably sparked a debate about the practice of Islam, however their behaviour was motivated by ignorance, not religion. Being orthodox, whether as a Muslim, Jew, Christian or any other faith denomination does not prevent believers from accommodating others, even if they are under their roof. A lack of education and understanding does.
The fault lies squarely with Tower Hamlets local authority, whose inadequate rating by Ofsted saw that the council made the news for its "... widespread and serious failures in the services provided to children who need help and protection in Tower Hamlets". Someone should have asked whether the carers would be comfortable taking on a child whose daily rituals would be different to their own. Uprooting a vulnerable child in need is one thing, removing any vestige of normality, any sense of familiarity they hold, should never be allowed.
At the tender age of five, the girl's cross was not a religious symbol to her, it was a source of comfort, something that she relied on to feel safe in a world full of uncertainty and fear. The spaghetti too, a sense of home, and warmth. That no one stopped to think about what these things meant to the toddler is a disgrace, but it is exactly the job of social services to be aware of contexts like this one.
A lot has happened since The Times broke its story about the case, on Monday. The little girl has since been reunited with her grandmother. The Family Court held a hearing on Tuesday, in which Judge Sapnara ruled that it would be in the child's best interests to live with a member of her family who could meet her needs "in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion".
This begs the question, if this was in the girl's best interests, why wasn't the placement made at the outset?
To understand that, we have to go beyond the debate about orthodox religion, prejudice and hate, and look closely at a child welfare system which puts profit before protection - and exploits families in poverty.
Budget cuts spurred on by austerity measures have left councils cash strapped and social workers tearing their hair out trying to work inside teams bound by red tape and dwindling resources. There are good child protection professionals on the ground, but at management level things become more complicated.
Directors and team leaders are under increasing pressure to ease the government's social burden by removing children from vulnerable parents whose ongoing difficulties cost the state serious money. One way of doing this is through fostering. To galvanise councils into action, the government has routinely offered financial incentives, both for fostering children and adopting them.
Reports like this one from Oxford University suggest that those who come forward to foster have mostly altruistic motives for doing so, though there is little evidence to substantiate this claim.
Whilst virtually no data exists on life circumstances of UK foster carers or the kinds of income they earn before taking on children, emerging research could offer clues about deeper motivations. A toolkit produced by the Fostering Network in 2012, called "The Motivations To Foster", received 1,400 responses to its survey asking about reasons for fostering. The respondents were members of the Fostering Network, which is made up of 42,000 foster carers - less than 4% of the network's membership. The survey reveals that of those who took part, the majority who fostered were between 35 and 45, with 84% of carers having children of their own and most moving into fostering after deciding to leave work.
The Oxford University study also highlights research that suggests a significant number of foster carers do in fact choose to foster after losing a job, or because they are looking to cover every day costs. This implies in part that the money being given to foster carers to look after children is seen as a convenient way to cover household bills and other every day expenses. These findings leave open the door for an important debate on fostering income as a way to fend off poverty for families who themselves may be in need.
The Muslim family in this case may well have chosen to foster for income. In 2014, Tower Hamlets had the second highest unemployment rate across London and almost half (49%) of children in Tower Hamlets were in poverty. As of 2016, it is now the worst place in England for child poverty. Families in the borough are clearly struggling and could be looking for ways to make ends meet. Fostering offers a way to do that. Parents can stay at home, raise their own children and cover utility bills without having to juggle conventional employment at the same time.
Making fostering an attractive option has become a brazen pass time for agencies, who look to target those thinking about caring for children. Private agencies like Simply Fostering offer around £450 a week for taking on a child, and outline breakdowns of yearly 'earnings' on their website as well as financial 'perks', quick to tell prospective carers that it's tax free income. Bragging about incentives is a common feature of the fostering sector, with agencies openly admitting that parents come forward for the cash. No mention is made of the often emotionally exhausting work in caring for traumatised children or the ongoing battles with biological parents looking to reverse care orders. All of that is conveniently swept under the carpet to ensure smooth transactions between agency and parent.
It's mass exploitation of families in need on both sides of the deal, and though no research has been done in this area could be an important factor in a lack of stability within placements which break down at an alarming rate.
This disturbing case is not about Muslim customs or the rights and wrongs of faith. It is about the need for better social work training, properly allocated budgets and finding alternative ways to source foster carers who have the insight and stamina to take on children in need of deep love and affection. It is about child protection professionals understanding what judges have been saying for years, what the law and policy tell us about rehousing children - that family members and friends must be considered first before sending a delicate child into an unfamiliar environment.
MPs are now being urged to relaunch a government review into fostering - if it does, the review's priority should not be scapegoating religion, it should be investigating financial incentives inside the care system and how we can meaningfully address every child's best interests.Suggest a correction