Social workers need to know how the use of key religious texts can influence how parents bring up their children if they wish to devise effective protection strategies, says Natalie Valios
The 18th century author Joseph Addison said: “We have in England a particular bashfulness in every thing that regards religion.” His view is probably as true today as it was then, but social workers cannot afford to ignore the faith of the families they work with, says Simon Bass, chief executive of the Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service.
“In order to engage with families we need to understand them. If faith is an integral part of who they are, then to have an understanding of that can only help both in terms of initial engagement and [to determine] whether their faith is a positive or negative factor. To ignore it can result in potentially flawed assessments of families and their ability to care for children.”
Actions which may seem illogical to a social worker may stem from an individual’s spiritual beliefs, he says. “For example, you may have a woman experiencing domestic violence from her husband and a social worker becomes involved with the family because of concerns about the children. The social worker might ask ‘why do you want to remain in the home; is it because of the fear of violence if you leave or is your husband preventing you from leaving?’ They could be reasons, but it may be because she sees that her marriage vows are before God and her church says that what God puts together man should not part, so she feels compelled to stay in that relationship because of her scriptures.
“Without understanding that this woman has a faith you could get a completely skewed view of her situation.”
The question social workers need to ask themselves, says Bass, is whether the person’s beliefs and practices are likely to cause harm to a child but “without understanding what those beliefs are, we can’t make that judgement”.
Philip Gilligan, a senior lecturer at Bradford University’s social work and social care division, agrees. His research has focused on religion, belief and social work practice and he says it is important for social workers to have some basic working knowledge of what different faith communities think.
“But it is probably more important that they have a ‘respectful uncertainty’ and realise that the information that a family is Muslim, Catholic, Evangelical Christian and so on doesn’t tell you a lot about their beliefs, it just gives you initial information that religion may be significant in their lives.”
It is, he says, essential to emphasise that holy books contain some quotations that are used by some people to justify behaviours that most would view as child abuse, at the same time as containing quotations that prohibit the abuse of children
“People can quote the Bible and Qur’an, for example, to rationalise what they want to. Both contain things that are open to vastly different interpretations,” Gilligan points out.
“There are some Evangelical Christians who would almost see it as their moral and religious duty to use corporal punishment on their children and others who would never harm a child. If [a social worker] was visiting them, both would appear to be strongly bound to Christianity and following the Bible as their guide, but they are getting different things from it in dealing with their children. We have to be alert to these complexities.”
Child protection consultant and trainer Perdeep Gill finds that the quote “spare the rod and spoil the child” is often used to justify physical chastisement: “There is no point in saying ‘it’s against the law’ because religion or morality is often considered higher than secular law. And it doesn’t give you any idea of why they did it or the level of risk and how it could escalate.
“In a situation like this I would say ‘doesn’t the Bible say something about the law of Caesar being followed so wasn’t Jesus saying the law of the land should be followed by good Christians?’ Or I would point out Matthew 18:6 (see below). You are getting them to think about other views from the Bible.”
In Camden, social workers in the children and families team have found working closely with the Camden Somali Cultural Centre helpful, says senior practitioner Sonia Isaza. “We went to visit a woman who had a black eye from her husband. She kept saying he didn’t hurt her and I didn’t understand that. But in the Qur’an I was told that it [can be interpreted] that if your wife does not listen you can hit her but not hurt her. So instead of getting caught up in the definition of hurt it was better to redirect the conversation to talking about the impact of domestic violence on the children and the law here.”
Gill often comes across cultural beliefs such as female genital mutilation (FGM) being muddled with religion. “I was doing some preventive work on FGM with a group of Somali women who said that it happened but it was cultural. So I asked them what their religion said about it. There are hadiths [teachings of the Prophet] which say that while male circumcision is obligatory, to do it to a female is a charity.
“You expect charity to be a loving gift and it has to be received as that. If FGM for them was a painful experience that undermines it as a deed of charity. I suggested there were other acts of charity they could show their daughters. You have to deconstruct ideas so they can see that their own faith gives them an alternative view to the absolute truth they are holding.”
Religious quotes about bringing up children
From the King James Bible:
Matthew 18:6 “But who so shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Proverbs 13:24 “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
Proverbs 23:13 “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.”  “Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Proverbs 29:15 “The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”
Ephesians 6:4 “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
Surat ‘Ali `Imran 3:159 “And by the Mercy of Allah, you dealt with them gently. And had you been severe and harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about you; so pass over (their faults), and ask (Allah’s) forgiveness for them. And consult them in their affairs.”
Sûrah an Nâs 4.119 “O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will…”
Torah (the holy text for Judaism is the first five books of the Old Testament)
Deuteronomy 8:5 “Bear in mind that the Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.”
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This article is published in the 27 October 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Suffer little children”