Cultural sensitivity is at the core of public sector service planning, but local authorities often struggle to transfer this ethos into how services are delivered on the ground.
In the case of vulnerable children considering cultural needs is particularly important because it could be a deciding factor in ensuring they experience a stable and healthy upbringing. The Islamic Fostering Service in Stoke Newington knows this better than most. Set up in 2003, IFS, a branch of Foster Care Link, has managed to find Islamic homes for over 60 Muslim children by acting as a “broker” between 15 local authorities in the south of England and families in the community.
Director Ismail Amaan believes that shared faith between children and carers has played a key role in the success of these placements.
Way of life
“Anyone who knows Islam knows that it’s a way of life,” he says. “It affects what kids have in their packed lunch, the celebrations they go to and the way they interact with other people. Put these kids with non-Muslim families, and they can end up feeling isolated.
“One Muslim child we know was placed with a family with a dog and of course he felt unclean. Another set of parents couldn’t figure out why their Muslim foster child was making food at midnight – they didn’t understand that he was fasting. Councils need to understand that successful fostering means cultural and ethnic matching.”
Although the Muslim community as a whole makes up just 2.8% of the UK population, research suggests that they could account for up to 6% of all fostered children. These high figures have international roots most of the children who come through the IFS are unaccompanied teenage boys from war-torn areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Unsurprisingly, the tumultuous backgrounds of these children can leave them more vulnerable to extremism, something that the IFS’s work helps to prevent. Placements in stable Islamic homes give these children access to adults who can offer guidance about more safe and appropriate ways to pursue their faith.
Meeka Choudhury, a British Muslim parent who works with the service, says: “Problems with extremism often stem from a lack of understanding between the carers and the child.”
Following a rigorous application process, the IFS introduced Choudhury to Abdul, a 14-year-old Albanian boy who has now been with her for two years. “Before he came to us he was staying with a non-Muslim family,” she says. “He felt he couldn’t discuss his faith with his carers and started hanging around with people who were pushing him down the wrong track. But since he’s come to us we’ve been able to guide his faith and explain what’s right and wrong.”
Choudhry believes that IFS has played a key role in Abdul’s successful integration into family and community life. “We’ve been 100% supported by the service.”
IFS’s success has been recognised across the board. Ofsted has classified them as “outstanding” for helping children’s achievement and enjoyment, and last year the organisation won the Muslim News Award for Excellence.
A “deep-rooted interest in the community, passion and attention to detail” are the keys to IFS’s success, says Amaan. Another factor is that all nine members of his team are practicing Muslims. “There’s a whole new level of trust when families see you as ‘one of their own’,” he adds.
Abdurrahman Sayed, senior social worker and Muslim scholar at the service, also believes strongly in the important link between the history of Islam – the Prophet Muhammad was taken in and raised by his uncle when he lost both his parents at the age of eight – and caring for vulnerable young people.
Sayed explains: “Muslim families who take in a child feel that they are fulfilling an element of their faith. This is reflected in the high quality of care that they offer.”
Published in the 3rd July 2008 issue of Community Care magazine with the headline ‘Islam is a way of life’