A Media Note on The Times‘s “Christian Child in Muslim Foster Care” Splash

Updated and revised following publication of the Case Management Order

A dramatic – and self-congratulatory – front-page article in The Times:

Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home

The Times praised for exposing council’s failure

A girl at the centre of a care dispute was removed from her Muslim foster parents yesterday and reunited with her family as a judge urged councils to seek “culturally matched placements” for vulnerable children.

The five-year-old, a native English speaker from a Christian family, was taken to her grandmother’s home after a court ruled that she should not remain in the placement organised by the London borough of Tower Hamlets.

Judge Khatun Sapnara, a practising Muslim, said it was in the girl’s best interests to live with a family member who could keep her safe, promote her welfare and meet her needs “in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion”. The judge ordered the council to conduct an urgent investigation into issues reported by The Times, saying that the newspaper had acted responsibly in raising “very concerning” matters of “legitimate public interest”.

…The court was told yesterday that the family’s wish for the girl to be placed in the temporary care of her grandmother had been under consideration for a number of months.

The story, by Andrew Norfolk, follows on from Monday’s much-discussed splash, which bore the sensationalising headline “Christian Child Forced into Muslim Foster Care”; the detail that the placement (and a previous one with the same girl, also with a Muslim family) had been made by “the scandal-ridden borough of Tower Hamlets” hinted at some sort of Islamist conspiracy, although this was not developed in the article despite the panicked tone.

According to this earlier story, the Muslim foster parents had mocked Christmas and Easter as “stupid”, removed a crucifix necklace from the girl, and encouraged her to learn Arabic. They had also confiscated a spaghetti carbonara meal that had been given to her, because of its pork content.

The story was accompanied by a photo of the foster mother in a burka, and some way into the report it was explained what kind of Muslim was meant in the headline:

Her first carer, with whom the girl lived for four months, is believed to have worn a niqab outside the family home. The carer at her present foster placement wears a burka, fully concealing her face, when she accompanies the child in public.

The wearing of a niqab or burka generally indicates adherence to a conservative, Salafi-influenced interpretation of Islam that is often contemptuous of liberal Western values.

This particular context, and the specific causes for concern noted in the Times article, are not properly reflected in the headline’s generalised reference to “Muslim foster care”.

Norfolk’s stock is high as the journalist who exposed organised grooming gangs in Rotherham; perhaps this influenced the decision to run the story as an unprecedented national outrage. However, the publication of the Case Management Order puts a rather different perspective on things.

The Case Management Order

Here’s what the Case Management Order tells us:

The mother raised some concerns about the appropriateness of the placement. On 27th June 2017, the court directed the Local Authority to produce a statement to address the cultural appropriateness of the foster care placement.

That statement was filed. The allegations made against the foster carers are disputed by the local authority.

The child’s Guardian has undertaken enquiries and visited the child in the current foster carer’s home and spoken to the child alone. The Guardian has no concerns as to the child’s welfare and she reports that the child is settled and well cared for by the foster carer.

The child’s Guardian, it should be noted, is court appointed and independent of Tower Hamlets council.

It appears that the father is absent, and there are no paternal relatives. The mother asked for her daughter to be placed into the care of her own mother on 27 June, but at that time the grandmother had not been risk assessed and so the 29 August hearing was arranged; although the mother “raised some concerns about the appropriateness of the [foster] placement”, she “at no stage applied to the court for a change of foster carer” in the meantime.

In mid-August, Tower Hamlets updated its care plan in anticipation of the child moving in with her grandmother, and the 29 August hearing approved this course of action after reviewing the grandmother’s assessment. The judge thus emphasises that:

For the avoidance of doubt, the Court makes it clear that the decision to approve the new care arrangements for the child to live with the grandmother under an interim care order is as a result of the application of the relevant law to the evidence now available to the court and not as a result of any influence arising out of media reports.

The last few words of this are acknowledged in the article quoted at the start of this blog entry, but the overall impression (both in this article and in tabloid derivatives) is that the judge had intervened to overrule Tower Hamlets council as a matter of urgency in the wake of Norfolk’s crusading journalism. In fact, though, this is completely misleading: the grandmother plan had not just been “under consideration” for eight weeks (or “a number of months”, to use Norfolk’s preferred phraseology) – it was actually in preparation, and the purpose of the hearing was to confirm that the placement could now be made and to set some conditions.

Judge Sapnara may indeed have commented on the grandmother as a better option “in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion”, but this phrase does not appear in the case management document and no-one had raised any proposition to the contrary. Also, there’s no sign of her “praise” for The Times in the document, although there is “concern that photographs of the child and foster carer have been published in the press.”

Unexpectedly, it also turns out that the grandmother wants to take the child abroad, and that the court order must be translated into “the language spoken” by her. And even more extraordinary is this detail:

Documents including the assessment of the maternal grandparents state that they are of a Muslim background but are non practising. The child’s mother says they are of Christian heritage.

Other Reports

The first Times article prompted a number of derivative articles in tabloids, replete with condemnations from MPs, while the Daily Telegraph published a Phillipa Space column on the subject by Allison Pearson (“It’s like something from a dark, dystopian drama. A five-year-old white Christian child is removed from her family and given to a burka-wearing foster carer…”). (1)

None of these other papers reproduced the photo used in The Times, perhaps because of copyright reasons or perhaps due to wariness around the legality of the original image. Thus the Daily Mail improvised, as reported by the Guardian:

Daily Mail and Mail Online paired an altered image with the story after following up the Times report. The original image of a couple in Islamic dress with a child was originally captioned “happiness couple in Dubai park” but was amended to cover the woman’s face with a veil.

The stock picture was supplied by Getty Images. Getty confirmed the original image did not show a woman in a veil but added it was a creative royalty-free picture, meaning that alterations to the original were permitted.

The Mail altered the image to mask the woman’s face and ran it in both the print and online editions. The online version was later altered to pixelate the woman’s face. The publisher of the paper and website has been approached for comment.

These changes were also noted on Twitter by @DMReporter, which keeps a critical eye on the Daily Mail and its stablemates. The paper did not attempt to pass the photo off as a genuine depiction of the case under discussion, but the effect was ludicrous: the alteration, as well as being in bad taste, was poorly done, and the current pixelated version is incoherent as regards what it is supposed be illustrating. For some reason, the altered version was credited to “Terry Harris/Bav Media REX/Shutterstock” rather than Getty. An even worse version of the veiled/masked depiction – in which the “veil” looks more like a ski mask – also made its way into Metro, the free paper for which the Mail provides content.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mirror simply used what appears to be a random snap of a woman holding hands with a child, viewed from the back – the contrast between the adult in brown Muslim attire (whose face may or may not be covered) and the child in colourful Western kid’s clothing is striking, but this is quite normal among Muslims in Britain.

In contrast, the BBC noted the positive counter-example of a Muslim family that “has been fostering children from all religions for 25 years” without controversy. But good news is no news; and on Twitter, The Times is now asking readers to email in with information about “foster children who were harmed/distressed after being placed with ‘culturally unmatched’ carers”.

UPDATE (31 August): The Case Management Order has now been reported in the media, headlined in The Times as

Child in Muslim foster home row may be taken out of Britain

The text explains that this refers to the child’s foreign grandmother, but the headline in isolation give a somewhat different impression. The article is again by Andrew Norfolk, and it’s curious that despite having been in attendance at the actual hearing he is only reporting this further context in the wake of a court upload to the internet.

The Telegraph, in contrast, went with

Mother of ‘Christian’ child in Islamic foster row was from Muslim family, court papers show

UPDATE 2 (2 September): The Times‘s Andrew Norfolk cover story today is “Rotherham MP Sarah Champion: Left ‘failing to confront truth of sex crimes'”, in which “sacked Labour frontbencher accuses her party”. This comes a couple of weeks after Champion, who at the time Shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, wrote an op-ed for the Sun under the headline “British Pakistani men ARE raping and exploiting white girls”. Champion later complained that the article had been “stripped of nuance” by editors, but she was forced to resign her shadow ministerial position.

Champion’s new comments to Norfolk are her first public comments since then, and it’s very reasonable to suppose that Norfolk elicited them now in order to shift the terms of the debate he triggered earlier in the week away from the specifics of his reporting and onto the alleged motives of his critics – supposedly, left-wingers (“the floppy left”, in Champion’s terminology) who are unwilling to confront the reality of sex crimes by members of ethnic minorities due to a distorted understanding of racism.

Thus the same edition of the paper also carries a leader, titled “Truth Hurts”, which describes criticism of Norfolk’s articles as being due to “a blind spot on the left” and refers readers to his previous reporting on Rotherham. The piece further asserts that there is no contradiction between the Case Management Order and Norfolk’s reporting, and notes that Ofsted has found the standard of social work services in the borough of Tower Hamlets to be poor.

The leader also complains that “leftist media” have accused the paper of “Islamophobia”. That’s not something I’ve delved into on this blog, but it very much seems to me that Norfolk’s articles on the fostering case were sensationalising and selective, the headlines inflammatory and misleading, and the whole treatment disproportionate. As an attempt to build on Norfolk’s reputation as the fearless truth-teller who broke the Rotherham story, his latest articles and the paper’s presentation of them seem to have been something of a fiasco.

UPDATE 3 (1 November): On 3 October, Andrew Norfolk followed up with an article explaining that Judge Sapnara had received a report from Tower Hamlets:

She said the local authority “has satisfied itself that the foster carers have not behaved in any way which is inconsistent with warm and appropriate care for this child”. The judge noted that the Tower Hamlets findings were strongly disputed by the mother and said she would make no findings about the truth of the allegations raised against the foster carers.

…Judge Sapnara said that the report provided an”alternative narrative” that was shared by the child’s court-appointed guardian.

Norfolk also reported that Tower Hamlets’ lawyer “agreed with the judge that the allegations were likely to have been reported in good faith”, and that he had “no criticism of the media at all”.

The court gave the council permission “to publish an edited version of its findings in the near future”, and this has now been put online. The BBC now reports:

The council responsible for the care of a five-year-old girl who was placed with Muslim foster family has rejected concerns about her treatment.

…A report by a senior social worker said the child had “expressed no negative views about Christmas, Easter or any religious festival” when questioned.

The five-year-old is currently living with her maternal grandmother, who the council said was “distressed and angered” by the “false” allegations against the foster carers.

…Lawyers for the child’s mother agreed the social worker’s findings were “an accurate representation of the outcome of the council’s investigation,” a Tower Hamlets spokesman added.

In response, The Times has issued a statement:

The Times reported concerns about the suitability of this foster placement raised by the child’s mother and a social care worker who supervised regular meetings between the girl and her birth family. Tower Hamlets was ordered to investigate the allegations and invited by the judge to publish an “alternative narrative” in respect of them; its report today rejects the allegations but records that the mother disputes the findings.

This is a grudging acknowledgement that fails to acknowledge the perspective of either the grandmother or the mother’s lawyers. There is also a subtle distortion in the suggestion that the judge “invited” Tower Hamlets to publish “an alternative narrative”, when she in fact gave permission to the council to publish the alternative narrative that had emerged from the investigation. The change of emphasis leaves the impression that the investigator’s brief was simply to come up with an account that would support Tower Hamlets’s handling of the case regardless of the facts.

Footnote: Shakeel Begg and the Lewisham Islamic Centre

(1) The Telegraph also tried to get a piece of the action with a spin-off article by Robert Mendick, headlined “Revealed: Extremist Islamic Preacher Hosted Foster Care Workshop”:

An extremist Islamic preacher helped in the recruitment of foster parents…

Lewisham Islamic Centre was chosen as the venue for a workshop  “on the importance and need of foster carers in the Muslim community” in March this year. A photograph from the event posted on the mosque’s website shows the gathering being addressed by Shakeel Begg, the imam…

Tom Wilson, a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society who has written a research paper on Begg, condemned the hosting : “It is inconceivable that those who espouse extremism should be overseeing childcare of any kind, including fostering. Shakeel Begg was found to be an extremist in the High Court as recently as October, and despite this Lewisham Islamic Centre has kept him in place as Imam and a trustee.

“Institutions linked to extremism are in no position to be involved in the foster process”.

Details of the workshop can be seen on a newsletter here. According to the blurb:

The Information Session was organised by Network Recruitment Solutions (NRS), who are responsible for the recruitment and assessment of Foster Carers for Lewisham Local Authority. The session was delivered by Wendy Lawrence, Louise Pearce and Antony Philomin who are all part of the recruitment team at NRS. Mohammed Hamid, a social worker from Lewisham Council was also present.

One of the key issues of the presentation was that out of 145 foster carers in the London Borough of Lewisham, less than 8 are of the Muslim faith.

As Muslims we are reminded about the importance of empathy and to care about those in need especially the children who are separated from their families.

There is some reason to be sceptical of Begg’s claims to moderation, but this is a complete non-story. Begg is not “involved in the foster process”, or “overseeing childcare” – he is merely introducing some outside speakers on a mundane topic.

Mendick’s article is a partial retread of a piece he wrote in April, headlined “Children Taken to Meet Islamic Preacher who had ‘Promoted and Encouraged Religious Violence'”. Again, the source was a newsletter on the Islamic Centre website, and once again, Wilson was on hand with some comments of condemnation. Presumably Mendick is given both elements on a plate on a regular basis.

UPDATE 4 (2020): In October 2019 a BBC Radio 4 series called The Corrections devoted an episode to the story, called “The Carbonara Case“. It includes an interview with Andrew Norfolk, speaking about the story for the first time..