Radicalism and Child Protection; working with the community
VCF – The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK provides emerging themes from its advocacy casework service to highlight how child protection is currently failing children and mothers in cases linked to radicalism, and the overarching threat of not engaging with a voluntary programme, which they are informed is aimed at suspected terrorists or supporters of terrorism.
VCF is the leading independent organisation addressing child abuse linked to faith or belief across all ethnicities, and uses its Protecting Children across Culture and Faith protocol to ensure that these and related themes are embedded within strategic policy guidance and operational procedures with the view to improve justice for all.
VCF does not position for or against the aims of the government’s Preventing Extremism programme, merely to inform what we are seeing in practice as a result of this policy, (which, in our view, did not go far enough in consulting with the community during its development and well overdue for review), and to share our advocacy-based experiences within child safeguarding processes.
Nor do we intend to comment on persons or individuals who are involved in counter-terrorism measures, or are currently under surveillance, though it is clear that the circumstances surrounding these individuals can provide the entry point for child protection.
Two key drivers for VCF’s published work is its national research project with the Manchester Metropolitan University, and an increase in cases linked to radicalism in local authority children’s services, driving families to VCF for advice or advocacy support.
In the national research project survey, in exploration of practitioner knowledge of child abuse linked to faith or belief, professionals referenced Prevent training, suggesting that the current emphasis on extremism had led to a lack of focus on other abuses, including linked to faith or belief.
VCF has long asserted that faith- or culturally-based practices should be viewed within a wider safeguarding agenda to assess the risk of ‘significant harm’ to a child. Where we seek to compartmentalise the various forms of abuse, such focus and adherence to the policy can often be to the detriment of the child and their interests, and become a tick-box exercise for mothers who are assessed as competent parents or care givers on all other aspects. For families linked to radicalism, some cases are only unique because of the strong political context.
In commenting, we seek to provide a community perspective and grassroots view of what is happening as a result of the government’s ‘extremism’ policy, and wider focus on radicalism and radicalisation through local authority child safeguarding practice.
To further highlight the ever-present reality of policies that may be misinterpreted or deviated from in practice, thus not being able to assess either way leading to false positives and negatives; does not identify potential risk as well as intruding on individual liberties.
First and foremost, VCF is not a funding-led organisation and has therefore resisted the pull of ‘Prevent’ funds to sustain its children’s rights activities. Our interest stems from the introduction of terms such as extremism, radicalisation and anti-radicalisation within child safeguarding lexicon, and we reflect through our legally-based advocacy service, on how, specifically mothers and their children have come under the scrutiny of such prevention policies, and why.
These mothers are often subjected to extensive social care intervention – beyond that which would be normal in a child in need or child protection process – without clear indication of abuse.
Why child safeguarding practice may be at odds with radicalism
It is important to reflect and consider the impact on mothers and their children, where a father is of interest to the State, and how the mother, and therefore the child, may be penalised due to inequalities within practice. We should also consider how the Home Office and the Department for Education (DfE) are positioning their services, where police have traditionally led on emergency cases only, with social care taking the lead role for Section 17 and 47 assessments (with apparent reversal in the dynamics for cases linked to radicalism). This also raises the oft-debated question of accountability and transparency within the system.
In the majority of VCF cases to-date, there is both a common factor, and entry point for intervention; namely it is the father that carries the alleged misdemeanour and irrespective of current marital status, or circumstance, a seemingly automatic process is initiated to assess the issue of potential radicalisation of the mother and her children, or the ability of the mother to protect her children from a ‘radicalised’ mind-set.
Case Example: A young Muslim convert had taken his younger sister abroad where she converted to Islam prior to being killed, possibly the cause of an unfortunate incident rather than faith-based abuse. The young man was known to the authorities who were monitoring his movements and yet managed to leave the country with a minor; resulting in a child death and a more appropriate case for the Prevent programme perhaps?
The process for Section 17 or 47 risk assessments is relatively straightforward, and in hindsight few can question the validity of initial concerns within a child safeguarding framework. Yet it is the mother, and ultimately the children, who carries the burden of the Prevent presence, introduced as a voluntary programme which does not appear so under the threat of possible removal of children for parental non-engagement. Are we to surmise then that social care assessments do not go far enough to protect children in cases linked to radicalism?
Mothers being supported by VCF cite the ERG22 assessment tool as one of the measures being used; a tool that is broadly agreed to have been specifically developed for ‘terrorism’ identification. Their right to refuse to engage with Channel and Prevent viewed as non-cooperation, when the perception that the programme highlights (and records) individuals as suspected extremists or extremist sympathisers appears to be a most effective barrier for most, some of whom have gone on to participate in alternative initiatives which may or may not achieve the same governmental aims. The conflict for mothers is that the programme is unclear (in the context of safeguarding children), yet she should trust it and subject her children to it.
The delivery of the Prevent agenda in mainstream schools has largely been achieved, though the concept and narrative appears to be at odds in practice, causing outrage by multiple agencies, and within affected communities. The rationale for Prevent is beginning to unravel for social care professionals in child safeguarding meetings, in addition to police officers attending such meetings within their ‘Prevent’ duty; each sticking rigidly to the ‘anti-radicalisation’ message yet not being able to articulate respective concerns about individuals’ views, rather than maintain the focus on any actions that may be harmful to the subject child. This approach is core to the VCF ethos when addressing possible child abuse linked to faith or belief.
For example, mothers are questioned on their lifestyle, acquaintances, choice of appearance, furniture, home environment, reason for faith, and subject to a level of scrutiny which contradicts their previously held views on the benefit of living in a democratic society, one which they want to promote to their children as a safe, healthy and stable environment in which to develop, grow and positively achieve.
In practice, such scrutiny can provoke an existential crisis, post-traumatic stress – a burden on a woman attempting to fulfil her mothering role.
Any causal link between an individual with extremist views and the so-called possible radicalisation of children, or others, has not yet been demonstrated. What we are seeing is a growing frustration within the community, and specifically with the Muslim population, with talk of Islamophobia, discrimination and violation of rights.
As a consequence of their interaction with services, the potential exists for young people and women (often victims of domestic abuse), without familial support (often prohibited) to be led towards unfavourable and radical outcomes; not as a reflection of radicalism or parental influence, rather as a response to actual or perceived discrimination. Is it possible that government policy will inadvertently ‘radicalise’ the nation’s youth, and women who have suffered from extensive, and often unwarranted, attention?
And what of any legal considerations?
In November 2016, ‘Is one individual’s radicalism another’s right to free speech?’ – a lecture by Jo Delahunty QC, highlighted that there has been no change to case law in proceedings linked to radicalism, albeit fundamentally differing approaches for prosecuting lawyers which can see sensitive evidence being shared indiscriminately across criminal proceedings.
Yet, undoubtedly influenced by Home Office policy, social care practice has changed dramatically in such cases, albeit largely unsupported by current procedures and guidelines. For example, the introduction of family or friends participating in a Family Group Conference being subject to DBS checks and information shared with the Police.
For the most part, child abuse lawyers have been behind the increase in such cases for VCF, seeking advocacy support for their clients to facilitate the communication between the child or parent and children’s services.
In seeking to support social workers and other children’s services, VCF is calling for local authorities to move away from the term ‘radicalisation’ in child protection, which should only be determined through criminal proceedings; the term is unhelpful and inappropriate as it carries negative connotations and, promotes a sense of feeling of already being accused, when determinedly linked to ‘extremism’ or ‘terrorism’. Radicalism appears to be a more appropriate term, from the community’s perspective!
For a mother, the suggestion of her purposely introducing harm to her children, or of neglecting to care for them, is deeply distressing, particularly where she is appropriately engaging with the relevant professionals and not identified as a risk. Are women and mothers being disempowered in the quest to secure convictions for ‘radical’ males?
The role of the mother has always been key to achieving positive outcomes for children, and of course the father provides a strong role model for any child even in circumstances where there is a breakdown in relationships. In our experience, based on years of hard anecdotal evidence, a mother will instinctively seek to protect her child, often to the exclusion of the child’s father, other than in very specific circumstances, or where mental ill health prevents her from doing so.
Where local authorities seek to assert control, this can easily lead to abuse of power, as they pursue implausible, and ethically questionable, requirements, guised as being necessary to protect children from pre-crime or perceived radicalisation. Mothers, who may be empowered by their faith, core values or principles to protect their children, are often and increasingly at the mercy of local authorities. The fear is that as consideration of their rights becomes diluted, they become ever more vulnerable within a system set up to support families and protect children, without distinction or discrimination.
One might question whether a woman who would be happier separated from her husband, would seek to remain with him, under his perceived protection, in a situation where she witnesses the treatment of others in the same position.
Addressing wider issues for mothers seeking to meet their children’s cultural, or faith related needs
Another aspect to be considered for children is their culture and sense of identity, particularly where certain restrictions are applied. For example, where extended travel bans impact on family life and acquaintance with family country of origin and culture. Or if a mother is penalised for making decisions on her child’s activities, schooling preferences, and comfort to express faith, and is challenged on her integrity when doing so.
In more than one case, VCF is providing advocacy support at child in need meetings, where child protection measures are being applied. How does a local authority circumvent its own procedures, when children do not meet the threshold for child protection plans?
And how does a case escalate to legal proceedings without the preliminary work with parents that is generally required ahead of any court proceedings?
Parental responsibility appears to be problematic in cases where local authority is dealing with separated parents, by choice or by imprisonment. By linking the case of the mother to that of the father, the local authority may strengthen their case for supervision, through the courts. With different approaches across boroughs, and no set precedence or guidance, are we in breach of Article 8 of the European Court of Human Rights, the right to family life?
An ad-hoc (and possibly emerging) issue for mothers involved with children’s services is that of being asked to seek divorce in the UK law courts, having already achieved an ‘Islamic’ divorce. This raises concerns about the choices for this woman to stay legally wed until such time as she decides it is appropriate to take action, or even reunite with her former partner at some later date, should she choose. Is she not entitled to the same respect and rights, until or unless any appropriate safeguarding restrictions are applied to her or her children?
Where mothers have been appropriately assessed and local authorities have no stated concerns, in terms of risk, why then does the process continue indefinitely – and without rational explanation. Is social care not able to adequately assess cases linked to radicalism? What are the additional determinants for the Home Office over and above the existing safeguarding process?
Dioum, M., Yorath, S. (2021) Radicalism and Child Protection; working with the community. The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK
In 2017, VCF joined forces with the UEL Centre for Social Work Research to establish the BME Migrant Advisory Group (B-MAG); Safeguarding Children and Young People, and launched the group in 2018 with the parliamentary support of Sir Keir Starmer, former Shadow Brexit Minister and MP for Holborn and St. Pancras.
‘Safeguarding children from radicalisation’ is the next in our series of B-MAG seminars; Dr Leona Vaughn will share lessons from research undertaken during the introduction of the Prevent Duty.
To learn more about the work of B-MAG: https://bmagsafeguardingcyp.com
26 April 2021