TOWER HAMLETS Mayor John Biggs and former Cabinet Member for Education & Children’s Service Cllr Rachael Saunders were caught up in a new scandal today as reports surfaced in some mainstream newspapers about a foster care placement.
It must be said from the start that the allegations have emerged in the newspapers which have turned slating Tower Hamlets Council into a sport. It is largely an Islamophobic sport, which continues, despite the change in mayor, because Tower Hamlet has a large Muslim population.
It has been revealed that a five year old white girl was fostered for six months by two Muslim families. That would not be unacceptable in itself: thousands of non-white and/or Muslim children will have been fostered by white and/or non-Muslim foster homes and vice versa. Local authorities are required to have regard for a child’s background when placing them in foster care, but that does not outlaw placing a child in a family of different colour or religion, especially for short-term or emergency foster care.
However, some of the details of the story do make it sound implausible. The national newspapers have apparently seen Local Authority reports which say that the fostered girl was upset because:
•no one in the foster family spoke English;
•the family took away her Christian cross;
•the girl told her birth family that Christmas and Easter are stupid and that European women are stupid and alcoholic;
•the family encouraged her to learn Arabic;
•the child asked not to be returned to a niqab-wearing home;
•the child had a home visit, after which her mother offered to give her some spaghetti carbonara to take back to the foster home, but the girl refused because it was banned by the foster family as it contained bacon, which Muslims do not eat.
This detail is remarkable for any five year old and suggests she has a thorough understanding of all the standard racist accusations made about Muslim people. How many Year 1 pupil know the ingredients of carbonara sauce? It makes the press reports sound implausible. If, however, the accusations are true, or if they are re-written and exaggerated versions of what has been reported in the Local Authority reports on which this story is apparently based, this case is a scandal.
Tower Hamlets Council had an Ofsted inspection earlier this year and Ofsted’s report, issued in April, found “widespread and serious failures” in the Council’s dealings with children who needed protection. Overall, children’s service were rated “inadequate”. Despite the strange detail of the current story, the Ofsted findings of inadequacy suggest there could be some truth at the heart of this story, despite its heightened reporting.
This story is not something John Biggs can blame on Lutfur Rahman (though he has tried to suggest that Rahman is responsible for Social Services failings which took place after Rahman left office. The Ofsted inspection took place well into Biggs’s watch – and the term of office of his Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Service, Cllr Rachael Saunders.
Cllr Saunders moved from that Cabinet post to another one at the Council’s AGM in May, before suddenly resigning from the Cabinet in early August. She gave her reasons for resigning as a change of job which would not allow her to spend the necessary hours on a Council post – but opposition councillors have expressed concerns that new Social Services scandals were about to break.
The Council jumped on the story very quickly, issuing overnight an immediate but anodyne statement to the newspapers with the story. This is reported as having said, “We are unable to comment on individual cases. In every case, we give absolute consideration to our children’s background and to their cultural identity. All our foster carers receive training to ensure they are fully qualified to meet the needs of children in their care.” That statement needs to go on the Council website for all to see and to be sent round the local press immediately.
The Council has been open in the past about how it recruits and supports foster carers and the vast majority of carers are probably doing a very good job and should not regard today’s press reports as a personal attack. However, the public need more and better answers in response to this case.
•What are the policies on fostering?
•How many children have been placed in homes where a culture different to their birth family’s culture prevails?
•Have any children complained about living in a culture they are not used to and what happens to them if they do?
•How did it happen that a journalist saw presumably confidential Social Services reports on an individual child?
We also need a robust response from the Mayor and relevant Cabinet Members to the Islamophobic slant of this story – as a matter of urgency.