Our latest fostering placement just ended, under very unfortunate circumstances.
Normally, trans-racial and cross-cultural fostering is a no-no: wherever possible, the agencies in charge will try to place a child with a family from a similar background. In practice this is often impossible: foster carers are mainly white British, and the demand for care from other groups in society is such that often compromises have to be reached. Even placing “appropriately” can often be quite inappropriate: if one of your cultural pigeonholes is labelled “Asian Muslim”, does that mean that it’s OK to place an Iraqi Sunni with an Iranian Shia family?
Cross-cultural fostering is something which Gill and I have been interested in for some time now. Last year, social services mistakenly placed a “dual heritage” (previously known as mixed race/half-caste/mulatto/…) boy with us. They were horrified: he should have been placed with a black foster family (the fact that his mum is white British apparently counts for little), and it was only because his paperwork did not mention his racial background that he accidentally ended up with us. Anyway, after some initial getting used to one another, it ended up being the most rewarding placement that we’ve had. We got a huge amount from the experience, as did he, and we were quite keen to carry on with similar placements if possible (which generally it isn’t, sadly).
However, one area where cross-cultural fostering is possible is with refugees and asylum-seekers. Many refugees arrive in this country as unaccompanied children, and there are often few, if any, foster carers from the same cultural background. Gill and I have a reasonable understanding and appreciation of various cultures, plus we are far more flexible than the majority of foster carers we meet (many are unwilling to adapt their routine or diet to suit a child’s culture, but we will very happily revert to vegetarianism, ban pork from the house, buy halal meat, make trips to the temple… whatever is required. Although I am a battle-scarred atheist, and Gill is no big fan of organised religion either, we are professional and sensitive, and do not seek to impose our views on the children placed with us, but instead respect their cultural background).
But it’s equallly important not to let “respect for another culture” slip into cultural relativism. All cultures are not equally valid in all respects and practices. We have been providing a home to somebody from a culture where it is considered acceptible to have sex with girls from the age of 12, where men can do so with relatively little fear of reprimand, but where any unmarried “woman” (i.e. 12 year-old or older) who is seen with a man risks ostracism and, were she in her own country, stoning to death.
And so it was that, because this child staying with us had been seen out with more than one man, we received news (from several quarters) that a contract had been put out on her life (some referred to it as a “fatwa”, although I think this is probably just muddled thinking). Social services and our fostering agency, while concerned by this news, did not take it very seriously at first, and she remained with us for several days. It was only once we, on our own initiative, spoke to the police and to the Refugee Council (both of whom have far more experience with this type of incident than social services or the agency) that we discovered the situation was very serious indeed, and we should certainly take the threat at face value.
She has since been moved from our house to a secure unit, and we now have a “panic button” installed in the house, which brings a reponse from the local police within approximately five minutes (we’ve been told not to let the kids or dog near it as, once pressed, the police will come and, if necessary, break down the front door, even if we phone them subsequently to tell them the button was pushed by a mistake). We sleep with a bucket of water underneath the letterbox. And we do not feel safe allowing any future foster placements into our home until this situation is resolved.