Cllr Andrew Wood represents Canary Wharf Ward on Tower Hamlets Council.

Tower Hamlets Council has once again been in the news after the publication in The Times newspaper last week of the story headlined “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”.

The story has united those eager to attack the press for past transgressions and those who dismiss this purely as Islamophobia. It is certainly true that some on the extreme right have exploited this story and that across the UK, foster carers do a great job under difficult circumstances, but our primary duty is to investigate what happened.

English law is clear on how foster placements should be made and that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” and that “when considering solutions, due regard shall be paid to the desirability of continuity in a child’s upbringing and to the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural and linguistic background.” The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child makes clear that these are also international norms.

The newspaper report, based in part on internal Tower Hamlets Council documents, suggest that the foster placements did not match the child’s ethnic, religious, cultural background and that Arabic (which the child did not understand) was allegedly the main home language at one of the two foster homes. The Council confusingly only refers to one set of foster parents. The fact that one set of grandparents were of a Muslim background, but none practising, is irrelevant in terms of the law as the child was raised as a Christian – and the grandparents’ background is anyway disputed by the child’s mother.

Tower Hamlets Council has given the impression recently that these rules do not apply to them as they never quote their legal requirements. Is this maybe why a Tower Hamlets Council employee provided internal Council reports to Andrew Norfolk of The Times newspaper on which much of his reportage was based?

Instead of dealing with the facts of the case as Councillors we were asked, by a senior Tower Hamlets politician to be “united at expressing our anger at the implicit and in some cases explicit Islamophobia of the articles written”.

Yes, we are angry at the attempt to introduce raw emotion into what is already a complex and difficult case where many questions remain unanswered. The Council has a clear responsibility to the child and where possible to answer those questions, not to create ‘anger’. We have repeatedly said that we do not object to Muslims caring for children of other faiths if appropriate and I know many Muslim families who would make great foster parents but neither can we ignore what the law says in finding placements.

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.”

But the Council still seems to believe that no child suffered harm through its failures. The Council now defend their actions by saying, for example of foster parents: “They represent the diverse make-up of our borough which is a place where people of all backgrounds get on with one another.” Or that we are a ‘mosaic society’ – true but irrelevant. The Council does not have a right to impose its own beliefs on what makes a successful foster match, but to interpret the law, and if it does not have enough appropriate foster carers, then to recruit more.

This is a summary of what The Times alleged, based at least in part on Council documents:

  • Arabic routinely spoken at home of first carer which the child did not understand
  • a necklace containing a cross was removed by the carer and not returned
  • 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 for one carer)
  • 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’

My colleagues and I have submitted twenty-seven questions as we try to ascertain the truth of these reports but with the obvious need to protect the identify of all of those involved. The court-appointed guardian did visit the child recently and said that she was settled and well cared for by the current foster family.  However we are glad that at last the most appropriate carer, the grandmother, has now been approved.  We should be doing more to seek the help of the extended family in cases like this.

Tower Hamlets is a fantastic place but it has a Council where the needs to appease interest groups and to defend multiculturalism seem to outweigh the interests of children.  We owe that little girl the benefit of an investigation to ensure that all children in the future are fostered by the best possible carers who will do their best to minimise the trauma of separation rather than, as is suggested, exacerbating it.