Do you know what will happen if you tell a child every day that they are useless, evil, unwanted and that they make the world a worse place? The child will start to question themselves, maybe even start to believe it, their self-esteem will decrease, they may become fearful of others, withdraw and, over time, it will affect their life choices, and increase the likelihood of angry, harmful and destructive behaviour. This self-fulfilling prophecy is called ‘labelling’ – when you label someone, particularly a child, they are pushed to become that which they have been labelled. This can sometimes apply to adults as well as children, particularly vulnerable adults who do not have a strong sense of identity.
As an experienced children’s social worker I have seen the effects of negative labelling, particularly with young people who are involved in criminal behaviour. The child’s ‘internal narrative’ – the story that they tell themselves about who they are – becomes negative and disparaging. This affects the child’s life choices and can lead to very poor decisions, such as who they choose to spend time with and not wanting to focus their efforts on improving their lives. When working with offenders, identification of the underlying factors does not provide justification for unacceptable behaviour, but it does help to explain some behaviour.
The high level of Islamaphobic rhetoric, across social media, press and public life is exposing Muslim children to regular and sustained negative labelling. An example of this type of sensationalist reporting was in The Times, on August 28th, where it was reported ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’. A Muslim fostering couple was accused of not being able to speak English, of making racist comments towards the child, and of forcibly removing a cross from the child. Further investigation and the disclosure of a court document revealed that the foster family was dual heritage, as was the child. The foster family spoke English well, and the child has since been placed with her grandmother, who does not speak English and is planning to move abroad with the child, and there has not been any evidence disclosed to the public about any type of abuse by the foster carers towards the child. Indeed, recent news reports state that the child is now missing the foster family.
Some people stated that Muslims would not tolerate the placement of Muslim children into non-Muslim homes, and yet, as the Adoption and Fostering Manager for the NGO Penny Appeal, we have found that of 3,000 Muslim children placed into foster care every year, roughly 1,500 spend time living in non-Muslim foster homes. The Penny Appeal Adoption and Fostering team addresses this issue by recruiting more foster carers and adopters, with a focus on recruitment from Muslim communities. We also offer support to non-Muslim carers, have commissioned academic research, involving Islamic scholars, and training fostering and adoption professions. We do agree that diversity of foster carers is essential to meeting the needs of all children in care; nonetheless, we absolutely value and respect any foster carer who provides a loving and stable home to a child in their time of need.
Large numbers of people who read ‘The Times’ article (or just saw the headlines) accepted what was written and did not see the subsequent articles correcting the false information. These people now wrongly believe that this particular Muslim fostering family was abusive towards a vulnerable child in their care – and they may also have the impression that this happens frequently. If this is then combined with the many other negative articles and comments about Muslims, these pieces of information may be joined up to create a false picture of Muslims being ignorant, abusive, regressive and oppressive. Of course, both Muslims and non-Muslims are susceptible to forming false impressions, which may lead to prejudice and discrimination. This is effectively what leads to prejudice and why many people readily accepted the original article which implied that the Muslim foster carers had been abusive. However, as an experienced social worker and Muslim I am not surprised that the story was highly inaccurate and that the child now misses the family.
There are routes to reporting false or misleading press stories, or discrimination and abuse, for example to the police, to the organisation or to the Independent Press Standards Organisation. However, we should also protect our children (and ourselves) from becoming disheartened and dissociated from Muslims and Islam as a peaceful and loving religion. This can be done by employing the ‘strengths-based approach’; in brief, the steps include having strong and loving relationships with our children (so they can speak openly with us about how they view Islam and Muslims); supporting our children to be happy and be optimistic about their future (including supporting them with their education and respecting their unique abilities); exposing our children to positive influences (and taking them away from negative influences, even within the family); spending time with good role models (friends, family and diverse community groups); and of course being a good role model to our children, showing them the values we wish them to have. All of these strengths help children to develop a strong sense of identity and resilience, which will protect them emotionally from the harmful effects of Islamaphobia. Of course, I would encourage these steps to be taken by people of all faiths to improve our relationships within our close networks, our communities and with the wider public.
The strengths-based approach can help all parents to protect their child from the emotional damage of negative messages, including prejudice and discrimination, and also to help the child and the family grow stronger in their faith and thrive in all other respects.
The Quran states “With hardship, comes ease” – building on the strengths-based approach within our families can help us to overcome the hardships of Islamaphobia, and give us the ‘ease’ of more loving relationships with our children, our families and our communities.
by Tay Jiva
Tay Jiva is a qualified social worker with 20 years of experience working with vulnerable children. She is the Adoption and Fostering Manager for Penny Appeal. For further information about adoption or fostering, see www.PennyAppeal.org, or call 03000 11 11 11.