Working with Muslim young people in foster care

Written by David Pitcher, Family Court Adviser

“J is always in her room. She never comes down” her foster parents told me. Threading my way past lively dogs and Lego sets, I found her sitting quietly next to items that I recognised from her home. I knew enough about her faith and the strong family ties it creates, to understand that however valid the reasons for her being removed from her mother, everything just felt strange and wrong to her. Not long afterwards, another young person asked me “now I’m in foster care, am I still a Muslim?”.

These and similar experiences led me to complete a study with a Senior Lawyer at Cafcass on the experiences of Muslim young people who were removed from home. We interviewed thirteen young people, reviewed literature and resources and held focus groups.

Surprisingly often, the young people told us stories of insensitivity by foster parents and social workers towards their faith and identity. One young person told me: “She gave me meat, and afterwards told me it was pork and thought it was funny. She gave me tiramisu, but I didn’t know it’s had alcohol in. I was ashamed. I was such a bad Muslim.”

This is a reminder of the importance of carers who are properly matched or are well trained and supervised. I also heard stories of how difficult, even impossible, it can be to reintegrate into your community after not having been a part of it. One young woman described how she felt being unable to attend a wedding or a funeral: “I feel embarrassed at not being able to speak the language. I look a bit of an idiot. It’s shameful. Because I’ve been in care, it’s difficult to dress right.”

There was, however, another side. When arrangements worked well, we heard how some children were able to gain an understanding of their foster parents’ culture from the inside in a way that they would never have done otherwise, such as Christmas. This was enriching and did not mean losing their own faith or values.

Despite times of awkwardness and embarrassment, one young person reflected: “It made me wiser. I have become more sociable, and more of a happier person.”
Diversity is not a category a person fits into (or not), but layers of experience that build over our lives, developing a rich and complex identity. As a Children’s Guardian I have observed how children, on entering foster care, have to negotiate differences of class, values and culture. It can be frightening and confusing. But when it works well, it can be enriching – a gain, not a loss.

As practitioners, we need to ask ourselves ‘how can we help children and young people to experience difference in this way?’.

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