Why negative, othering narratives hold back real debate — The Christian girl and the Muslim foster carer.

I am actually quite horrified at the coverage in most national newspapers over the last couple of days focusing on the Christian girl who was being cared for by a Muslim family.

I am horrified at the coverage because it actually has nothing to do with fostering. It is simply Islamophobia, plainly and clearly. It plays into the moral panic, the perceived fear — The idea that this girl has been or could be radicalised. Simply due to the differing faiths of the parties involved. Now let me just say, I dont know the case, the child, the family or the situation — So quite simply, I am not going to comment on it at all. Only to say, that all the coverage I have seen on the issue is Islamophobic.

When shock horror and phobic reporting impedes real debate

The sad thing is that there is a real debate to be had here. As many who follow my work know, I work with many young people from many different cultures, from many different religions and with many different needs. Many of those are in or have been in the care system.

I have had experiences where cross culture foster placements have worked and I have had many that haven’t. This isn’t down to an issue of race, or indeed Islamophobia however. This is down to the meeting of a child’s cultural needs. And this is a debate we need to have.

A good example is many of the Ethiopian boys that I work alongside. They all hold the same faith, Orthodox Christianity, which requires certain practices of them, certain places of worship and so on. Given many of their experiences as child refugees, it is often the case that they place a maybe heavier weight on the spiritual life, given the amount they have drawn on it throughout their incredibly difficult situations.

Now I will be the first to admit, as someone who works with them that I am not best placed to meet those cultural needs. I am not from their culture. I can research it and I can show interest to the children about it. But I am not an Orthodox Christian, I don’t share their belief system and therefore while I can empathise, I cannot fully understand and certainly cannot meet their needs in that domain as an individual to the extent that they deserve to be met.

The same could be said for foster care placements. Cultural needs, in my view, are some of the most crucial, yet in my view often the most overlooked needs. In my frame of reference, child refugees, the separation from place and culture is a huge thing and causes irreparable trauma and it becomes ever critical to rebuild their cultural network and ensure they are able to fully exercise their identity, culture and belief system. These children need to be in placements that can do that. For some, a cross cultural placement will be fine and needs can be met through the building of community networks. But for others, it just is not enough and can lead to frustration and a child’s needs not being met — Regardless of the skill of the foster carer.

It is about meeting the needs of the child in a way that is culturally sensitive, ecological in nature and works to achieve the best outcomes. This is the debate we need to be having, about the successes and challenges of cross cultural fostering. The debate we need to having is evidence based and focuses on what works best. It is radical, in the challenge of under-representation of certain groups and cultures in the fostering system and the institutional racism or oppression that sometimes drives that. It is about the general shortage of foster placement and the lack of choice about where a child is placed. It is recognising the importance of meeting cultural needs. Most of all, it’s keeping the needs of the child as the only and main consideration.

It is not about the fear that the poor christian girl will be radicalised. It is not about creating hate and division. It is looking at things solely from the point of individual needs — On a case by case basis. It is about exploring the impact of faith and culture on fostering placements. It is about exploring this through a lens of needs, cultural influence and identity.

The impact of othering narratives

My concern is this. I have laid out what I consider to be a very reasoned argument here about the need to consider culture as part of a fostering arrangement. Nothing in there is racist, nothing phobic of anyone else, it is a measured argument centred around evidence, needs and cultural identity.

By driving hate, the media impede real debate like this. It stifles it, it makes it difficult to raise genuine opinions and debate about the true subject matter. It serves only to fuel Islamophobia and thus create a narrative so destructive that it makes meaningful debate difficult, closes it down and suffocates it through fear that doing so may be racist.

I have seen others deal with this by labelling and heralding foster carers as heroes (you may already know how I feel about this) and thus the media as villains. But that does not do anything to further anything else — It just feeds into the division. It creates a second narrative — The hero Muslim foster carer vs all other Muslim’s, which is equally as destructive. This is the impact of othering narratives, they divide, they fuel hate, they fuel phobia they fuel ignorance and they fuel the looking at things as black and white — Instead of the shades of grey a constructionist perspective insists on.

So there is a debate buried in here which has already been going for a long time — But it is not in othering, fear and moral panic we will address it and the articles that have been published have nothing to do with the real debate. The behaviour of the media and those with the loudest voices is once again, ill-mannered, dangerous and badly considered.