A local authority “lost sight” of the religious needs of seven siblings in care amid problems managing the case, a judge has ruled.
The judgment of SM and Ors, concerned six boys and one girl whose parents were devout Muslims. The children were placed in six separate care placements, two boys shared a foster placement, four were in individual fostering homes and one was in a residential unit.
Prior to being taken into care, at home the children were encouraged to pray and study the Quar’an. Their diet and other aspects of their lifestyle were determined by their faith, and the older children attended regular religious education classes.
In the proceedings, the parents contested that, while in care, the children’s religious and cultural needs were not being met.
In his judgment, Justice Baker found the local authority had “struggled to comply” with its duty under the Children Act to make sure a child does not grow up in a different “religious persuasion” in care than they would have at home.
He said: “Although clearly fundamental to the family’s life at home, it seems none of the children has attended Mosque whilst in foster care. Teaching and supported study of the Qur’an is non-existent.
“The carers’ notes reflect little understanding of the issues. Importantly to my mind, she observes that there is no designated member of the local authority team to support them to meet these needs”.
Baker told the local authority, which was not named in the judgment, to appoint a specialist worker to the case in order to address the issues identified.
In a supplementary document, the local authority said it would amend care plans to ensure the social worker supported the education of carers in the Muslim faith and hold meetings to discuss the encouragement of the Muslim faith, attendance at the mosque and studying the Qu’ran. The local authority would also pay for studying of the Qur’an for each child that wished to do so.
The judge acknowledged that the case, which spanned more than two years from the family becoming known to social services, was complex.
The children were originally placed in local authority care after child protection investigations into allegations of abuse by the father against the older children.
The local authority initially decided to rehabilitate the children with their parents and provide extensive support. However, it was discovered one of the girls had suffered sexual abuse by older siblings, which the parents had failed to prevent.
The two eldest siblings in the family had been charged with regards to sexual abuse against their sister.
The eldest had been convicted on all counts, including rape, and received a 4-year custodial sentence. He was not covered by this care proceedings case.
The other older sibling had been convicted of sexual assault, but acquitted of rape, and was subject to a youth rehabilitation order for 18 months. This included a requirement for a residential placement with the local authority for six months.
The other children were in foster placements. Several had experienced placement disruption, and the local authority was seeking placement orders for the two youngest.
Social worker praised
Baker said he did not underestimate the challenges the situation had posed to the local authority, but he felt religious needs had “at times been lost sight of amidst the overall problems thrown up by this case”.
The judge did however praise the social worker involved who “grappled with the intricacies of this complex case with, so far as I have been able to discern, only limited support”.
He said it was unsurprising that she appeared overwhelmed by the demands of this case.
“It is exceedingly unfortunate, to say the least, that the local authority was unable to allocate an additional social worker to take on some of the burden of this arduous case.”
The judge criticised the local authority for not considering long-term fostering as an option for the two youngest siblings. He said this showed the council had “struggled with the complexity of the issues arising in this case”.
Baker issued care orders for all seven children, with five remaining in their current placements, while the two youngest were to be found a long-term foster placement together.
If the children could not be returned to parents or placed in a culturally appropriate placement, which was the outcome for the children remaining in their current placement in this case, the local authority would be under a greater duty to ensure cultural and religious needs are met, Baker said.