Act of Faith?

The face of child protection is constantly changing and there is an
inevitable time-lag in recognising emerging problems and developing
the knowledge, skill and confidence to deal with them on a
multi-agency basis.

There are currently challenges in identifying and communicating
with the numbers of new communities and faith groups which have
emerged in London and other cities in recent years. Any challenge
to the culture of a community, particularly if linked to religion
or belief, must be handled very sensitively.

It is not the role of safeguarding agencies to judge culture or
belief – our job is to protect children. We need to be careful not
to be seen to “demonise” whole communities and faith groups as this
will prevent us gaining trust and confidence and could undermine
our objective of improving the protection of children.

Lord Laming’s Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie was a
defining moment for child protection in London. As a response to
the inquiry, the Metropolitan Police established the largest group
of child abuse investigators in the world, now officially named the
Child Abuse Investigation Command (CAIC) with 470 police officers
and 180 policy support staff working to make London safer for

Senior officers from CAIC joined with colleagues from health,
education, social services, probation, Association of London
Government and the voluntary sector, to form the London Child
Protection Committee (LCPC) to provide a strategic lead for the
protection of the city’s children. Pan-London child protection
procedures have been a successful outcome.

London is home to nearly half of England’s ethnic minority
population. Over 30 per cent of Londoners belong to an ethnic
minority community and over 300 languages are spoken by pupils in
London schools. This presents its own special challenges for
safeguarding agencies. Lord Laming’s report touched on race and
diversity and focused on whether ethnicity or race clouded
judgements about protecting children. Most professionals would
agree with the position that child abuse is a crime and cannot be
excused on any grounds, but how culture and diversity are addressed
within the child protection context is crucial to successful
safeguarding strategies.

Generally people from all cultures want the best for their children
and want to keep them safe. We need to work towards empowering
communities to take responsibility for implementing the changes
needed to protect children. The police and their partners do not
have the will or the ability to police places of worship or family
homes. We rely on communities to alert us where crime is suspected
or committed.

The challenge from Victoria’s parents to the Metropolitan Police
after the Laming Inquiry was: the community tried to support
Victoria, what are you doing to support the community? In response,
the Metropolitan Police formed an independent advisory group on
child protection from a broad range of ethnic and cultural
backgrounds and employed two community partnership officers on an
11-month pilot.

These were non-police officers tasked to engage with the community
regarding child protection and focusing mainly on black and Asian
communities in two East London boroughs. They spent time with
community and faith groups discussing cultural and child protection
issues. Although there was some initial resistance, with
reassurance and patience, the workers were able to effectively
engage with community groups. The project provided an extraordinary
amount of information and several common themes emerged:

  • Different thresholds were applied by communities for what
    constituted child abuse.
  • The impact of cultural values on child abuse such as honour and
  • Culture, traditions and faith were used to deny, minimise or
    justify serious harm to children.
  • Communities would often have rationales to justify some forms
    of child abuse.
  • All of these acted as inhibitors to reporting crimes against

    The community partnership officers were very careful to
    differentiate between real and anecdotal evidence as there are no
    easy ways to quantify the concerns and allegations relating to
    potentially abusive customs and practices. Safeguarding agencies
    are dealing with a relatively small number of child protection
    cases identified as cultural or religious abuse and it is important
    to keep a perspective on the size of the problem while preparing to
    identify and deal with any incidents arising. Project Violet is an
    important part of the police and partner agencies’ response to
    ritualistic abuse of children linked to cultural beliefs in
    witchcraft and demonic possession.

    We have to recognise that there is a general lack of awareness and
    skills within the safeguarding agencies in identifying the causes
    and effects of this type of child protection concern and that, as
    in the case of forced marriage, practitioners and managers need
    expert guidance and training in recognising and dealing with the

    The learning and sharing of good practice from the Project Violet
    pilots are being rolled out across London through workshops which
    will engage community and faith groups as well as staff from the
    statutory and voluntary sectors. A number of London boroughs, most
    notably Tower Hamlets, were commended by a recent BBC survey as
    proactively engaging with its diverse communities and identifying
    hard-to-reach groups and sects.

    The Association of Directors of Social Services has urged its
    members to use local community contacts and intelligence to engage
    with all faith communities including the smaller less formalised
    sects. The strong message to the ADSS is to raise awareness and
    clarify standards on the treatment of children by all communities
    and faiths. We must not hesitate to protect children and cannot
    allow political correctness or accusations of racism to prevent
    decisive intervention if there is potential or actual harm to a

    The funding of the Metropolitan Police Community Partnership pilots
    has now been taken over by the LCPC which is setting up a
    multi-agency group to co-ordinate and advise on these issues from a
    pan-London perspective. Concerns about “missing” children will also
    be on the agenda for the group which will have representatives from
    the Department for Education and Skills and the Commission for
    Social Care Inspection, as well as key safeguarding agencies and
    voluntary organisations.

    There will be many challenges to face in filling the gap between
    culture, belief and safeguarding children. Based on the
    Metropolitan Police Community Partnership pilots and the outreach
    experience of some London boroughs, a solution appears to lie in
    engaging with communities and building bridges to influence the
    thresholds of child protection.

    There is a significant amount of work to be done to build trust and
    alliances in order to gain acceptance by all communities and faith
    groups but this must be prioritised if all London’s children are to
    be safeguarded.

    Training and learning
    The author has provided questions about this article to
    guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at
    and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on
    a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a
    service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered

    In response to concerns that some children are being
    harmed by cultural and religious beliefs and practices, London’s
    safeguarding agencies are working together through the London Child
    Protection Committee to actively engage and support all communities
    and faith groups in the protection of children.

    Contact the authors
    Contact Hannah Miller by e-mail at
    or Chris Bourlet by e-mail at 

    BOXTEXT: HANNAH MILLER is director of Croydon social services
    department and the ADSS representative on the London Child
    Protection Committee. Detective superintendent Chris Bourlet is the
    deputy head of the Metropolitan Police Child Abuse Investigation

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