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A High Court judge has urged councils to seek “culturally matched placements” for vulnerable children after approving a request by Tower Hamlets council to move a Christian looked after five-year-old girl from Muslim foster parents to her grandmother’s care.

The child was placed into foster care in March 2017. At the time, the council said, there was no culturally matched foster placement available. Concerns were expressed by the child’s mother in June that the placement was not appropriate and that she wished the child to instead be looked after by her grandmother.

A consequent hearing of the Family Court on the 27th June asked the council to produce a statement addressing the cultural appropriateness of the placement (which it did) but ruled that it was too early to order the child to be placed with the grandmother as a full assessment of her suitability as a carer was not available. The court scheduled a further hearing for 29th August.

The case came to prominence following reports in the Times newspaper that the girl initially spent four months in a foster home where the family often did not speak English at home and encouraged her to learn Arabic. The newspaper said that social services reports recorded that she was tearful and distressed when she was returned to the home. She was subsequently placed into respite care of a second Muslim couple, where she spoke of regularly eating meals on the floor.

In both households, the newspaper claimed, the primary foster carers veiled their face in public. The Times reported that a council employee heard the child say that the first foster parent, to whose care she was due to have been returned this week, had taken away her necklace, which had a cross. The same family was said to have refused to allow her to eat a carbonara meal because it contained bacon. The council disputed the allegations against the foster carers. The child’s CAFCASS guardian had spoken to the child alone and to the foster parents and reported no that she had no concerns about the girl’s welfare or the foster carers.

The girl’s mother expressed further concerns about the suitability of the foster carers and the council proposed a change to its care plan to enable the child to be placed long-term with the grandmother now that the assessment of her suitability to care for the child has been satisfactorily concluded. In approving the council’s revised care plan, Family Court judge Khatun Sapnara said that it was in the girl’s best interests to live with a family member who could keep her safe, promote her welfare and meet her needs “in terms of ethnicity, culture and religion”.

She also ordered the council to respond to further allegations about the placements made in court by the child’s mother. However, she emphasised that the ruling was based on the application of the law to the evidence and was not influenced by media coverage of the issue. The next hearing in the case is due to take place on 2nd October.

In a statement, the council said that press reports that the foster families did not speak English were inaccurate. In a statement, it said: "The decision to choose foster carers for a child is based on a number of factors, including cultural background and proximity to promote contact with the child's family and the child's school in order to give them as much stability as possible.

"We have always been working towards the child being looked after by a family member and we continue to do so."

An anonymised draft of the order has been published by Family Court and can be downloaded at the following link:

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