In August, the Times’s front-page story was “Christian girl forced into Muslim foster care”. It was followed by a series of high-profile stories, with the paper proudly vindicating itself by declaring: “Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster parents.” The headlines created an almighty media stink.
Yet we now know from the court that far from being a child wrongly placed with unfit parents, as was reported, the five-year-old girl actually had a “warm relationship” with her Muslim carers and misses them.
In its attempt to create a storm, the Times not only attacked thousands of foster parents whose sacrifices are essential yet rarely acknowledged, it did so in a way that was framed as a clash of religions: one that appeared to give supremacy to a white Christian girl over a backward Muslim family, and one that seems to have forgotten that more than 1,500 young Muslim children have spent time in care at non-Muslim homes.
Contrary to claims, the foster family did speak English, the child was not denied certain foods for religious reasons and, while a long necklace was removed from her, this was because her carer was worried it posed a safety risk, not because of imagined religious strictures.
The coverage of this story was an opportunity to raise serious issues: given the ultimate goal of safeguarding a young child in need, how much importance should be given to the cultural and religious match with the young child for a short-term placement? And what should be the criteria for recruiting foster parents given the huge shortage in the sector?
Yet if this was the aim, why were the voices of foster parents such as Martin Barrow and Esmat Jeraj not sought – individuals whose homes were shared with vulnerable young children of different cultures? Why were independent providers of foster care and advisory groups such as the Fostering Network not cited? They later joined over 20 others in a statement calling out the Times’s “divisive reporting”.