Muslim fostering row: how the Times and Mail gave a skewed portrayal

In March, a five-year-old girl was taken from her mother’s care by police in east London and placed into foster care on an emergency basis. On Monday, claims that the child was a “white Christian” and had been left distressed after being placed with a Muslim family became the focus of a political and media storm. But as the week unfolded, and the newsprint dedicated to the dispute mounted, it became clear that the initial portrayal of the case was one-sided, if not inaccurate.
The furore surrounding child AB, as she is known as in court documents, was prompted by a front-page article in the Times headlined “Christian child forced into Muslim foster care”. The paper reported that a “white Christian child” had been placed with two Muslim households by Tower Hamlets council over the past six months. According to confidential local authority reports, a social services supervisor had described the child crying, asking not to be returned to one foster carer because “they don’t speak English”. The report included a pixellated photograph of the girl in the company of a woman – alleged to be her foster carer – wearing a black niqab or burka.
Elaine Dibben, a consultant for CoramBAAF, an independent membership organisation for professionals working in adoption and fostering, told the Guardian it was important to consider foster cases from multiple viewpoints. “One of the reasons we won’t comment on individual cases is we’re always aware that there’s one perspective being reported and there will be many perspectives, some of which can’t be reported,” she said. “You’re having to juggle the time you have to make that decision – you need a placement for the child on the same day – and you’re trying to juggle things like keeping the child local to the family, their school, their friends, their activities, alongside matching the other more complex aspects of the case.”
At a time when studies have found media reporting about Muslim communities contributes to an atmosphere of rising hostility towards the Islamic faith, far-right groups seized on the story as a vindication for Islamophobia. Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, tweeted links to the story to his followers. The far-right party Britain First posted a video of its leader, Paul Golding, denouncing the decision as an “absolute disgrace and an outrage” in front of a graphic of a floating union jack, holding the case up as an example of “what the future of this country is going to look like”.
Behind the scenes, Tower Hamlets council was frantically trying to temper the situation. Sources within the council told the Guardian they were genuinely fearful the Times coverage would identify the girl or her family in what was a complex and highly sensitive situation. Both sides appointed QCs to mediate.
The Daily Mail followed by putting the story on its front page on Tuesday under the headline “MPs’ anger as Christian girl forced into Muslim foster care”. The former Mail Online columnist and far-right commentator Katie Hopkins tweeted an image of the front page, asking: “Which individual at Tower Hamlets was responsible for the abuse of this little girl?”
The Daily Mail and Mail Online did not have a photograph of the girl at the heart of the case. Instead, they used a stock picture of a Muslim family to illustrate the story in print and online. But they altered the image to cover the woman’s face with a veil. The two papers are facing an investigation by Ipso, the newspaper regulator, after complaints were made about their coverage.
The mounting hysteria over the case forced Tower Hamlets into a corner and the council reluctantly compiled a lengthier statement, defending its actions but also hitting out at inaccuracies in the report. Most notably, the council said the child was in fact being fostered by an English-speaking family of mixed race, undermining the central issue in the initial media reports. On Wednesday, it emerged a hearing had been held at the east London family court the previous day in which a judge had ordered that the foster care placement should end and that the child should reside with her maternal grandmother. A report of the hearing on the Times’s front page focused on the judge’s decision to place the child with the maternal grandmother and was presented as a victory for the newspaper.
But in a rare move, the judge, Khatun Sapnara, decided late on Wednesday to publish the order due to the “exceptionally high degree of interest”. The 11-page document gave a more detailed, if not complete, picture of the background to and circumstances of child AB’s removal, containing some revelations that jarred with the initial reporting on the case. Firstly, the child’s maternal grandmother is a “non-practising Muslim”. In addition, the grandmother does not speak English, the order stating she required a translation of the document. The grandmother also expressed a desire to “return to her country of origin and care for the child there”. The child’s mother told the court they were of Christian heritage. The order does not elaborate on possible clashes between the two accounts. It did, however, provide some detail as to the mother’s background. The court ordered the Metropolitan police to disclose to Tower Hamlets “all papers relating to the criminal proceedings in respect of mother, and to include any notes of sentence and pre-sentence reports”.
She also had applied for a Scram bracelet, a tag to monitor levels of alcohol consumption, and her solicitors requested permission to supply results for cocaine testing. The child’s biological father could not be located, the order said. Regarding the foster carers, the order revealed that a court-appointed guardian visited the child at the carers’ home and spoke 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 document states. The papers showed that Tower Hamlets council had wanted the girl to be placed with her maternal grandmother. Strict vetting rules meant this was not immediately possible and she had to be placed in temporary care. The grandparents underwent a full assessment and the judge was able to approve the request.
Questions remain, and will likely remain in the interests of protecting the child’s identity. But Dibben said one certainty was that authorities – the police and council in this case – would have had concerns that the child’s safety was at risk in her mother’s care. “Children will only ever be removed from their families if there are significant concerns about the safety and wellbeing of the child,” she said. While matching a child to a foster family with a similar cultural background was important, it was not as crucial as keeping them in the local area, Dibben said. “If you’re a child that’s just been taken away from your family home possibly in quite traumatic circumstances with police and whoever else there, what you need is to be kept local so at least the next day you can go back into school or nursery, and you can see your family,” she said. “Keeping people local is one of the primary criteria.” Dibben added that there were “far more examples” of Muslim children being placed in white British Christian families – particularly unaccompanied asylum seekers – that worked successfully.
James Sandiford, a solicitor with the children’s team at the law firm Russell-Cooke, which deals with about 150 childcare cases a year, said there was no rule or requirement that children must be placed with carers of the same cultural or religious background. “Local authorities across the country have a shortage of foster carers and many are advertising to recruit more,” he said. “For a child who has suddenly been removed from home, and who may have little understanding of what is happening to them, the most important consideration will probably be to have carers to offer them love and reassurance, and who are willing to invest in their relationship for however long they care for them.”

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