The religious factor in Muslim foster care in the West

Sunday 03/12/2017

The controversy over a British Muslim family fostering a Christian girl has bubbled up in British media.

The story claimed that a 5-year-old Christian girl’s Muslim foster parents stopped her from eating pork, told her to learn Arabic and removed her crucifix necklace. The authorities in the family’s London neighbourhood, however, rejected concerns about the care received by the child.

So, what’s the reality of Muslim foster care and adoption?

Every child deserves a stable, loving home and more Muslims need to consider fostering or adopting children in need.

Penny Appeal, an online fundraising platform that has an adoption and fostering team, said at least 3,000 Muslim children go into foster care in the United Kingdom every year. The group used a Freedom of Information request in 2015 to compute the figures.

Penny Appeal said that half of the Muslim children in foster care spend time living in non-Muslim homes. This is because it is more likely a Muslim child will be fos­tered by a non-Muslim caregiver than the other way around.

Many children in care barely speak English and are likely to be placed with English-speaking families. “Half of the Muslims in the UK live in London (and) the largest amount of need is in Croy­don and Tower Hamlets,” areas with large Muslim populations, said Penny Appeal Adoption and Fostering Manager Tay Jiva.

She cautioned that it is difficult to ascertain religious information about children who need care and foster families. “A third of local authorities do not disclose infor­mation categorised by religion,” she said.

How likely is it fostered children will receive care that considers cultural and religious heritage? What of Arabic-speaking refugee children?

The Fostering Network, a Brit­ish charity, started the Muslim Fostering Project to help car­egivers better meet the needs of children they care for.

James Foyle, who oversees the project, said: “There is not enough information on the number of [caregivers] by faith, just ethnicity. Our work will look at how services can overcome challenges of matching children with families from the Muslim community. We will be publishing a report that will summarise our key findings in March 2018.”

Such considerations would help in such cases as the Ethiopian Muslim boy who was placed in the care of three non-Muslim fami­lies. Media reports said the child had no Muslim friends, did not know anything about his back­ground and his idea of Muslims was formed only by what he saw or read in the news.

As an adult, he said social ser­vices did not try hard enough to place him in a Muslim home and there were not enough Muslims prepared to provide foster care in his area. It was only when he grew up and started to live indepen­dently that he began to inves­tigate his identity and embrace Islam. Though he said he doesn’t resent his caregivers, he said it wasn’t right that he was given no exposure to his religious tradition.

Some of these issues would be automatically addressed if Mus­lim families were more willing to foster children. When Muslims do put themselves forward to become foster parents, there can be problems, many of them of perception. A Muslim woman posted about her personal experi­ence on a fostering website and described the cultural challenges of caring for a non-Muslim child. Her confessions were frowned upon by other users of the site.

The woman said she was uncomfortable with her young female charge showing her legs and insisted she cover up in pub­lic. This also provoked negative comments.

The problems faced by Muslim caregivers in the West are hardly limited to the United Kingdom. There are examples of good prac­tice further afield, not least in the United States. The Muslim Foster Care Association in Michigan has a support group for foster parents. It’s an idea that many who work on the issue say would be useful in Britain.

The role of adoption and foster­ing in Islam has been debated.

However, Muslim scholars point to a Quranic verse that says God is squarely on the side of the orphans, especially “those who swallow the property of the orphans unjustly.” The Prophet Mohammad adopted the slave Zayd ibn Haritha.

Jiva said she has been told by Islamic scholars that “fostering is highly commendable and a blessed thing to do. They say we are accountable for orphans not having a home.”

However, the social problems of including a stranger within the family remain. These should be discussed and addressed so more Muslims come forward to help children in need.