A media storm was created recently when three children were removed from their foster care placement because the foster carers are members of UKIP.
Since then, someone has asked me, "Where do you draw the line? What if non-white children are placed with foster carers who are members of the BNP?" I can see where this question comes from, but to me, it somewhat misses the point.
Prior to being approved as foster carers, applicants go through an extensive screening programme, including training sessions and a multitude of interviews in the home. References are taken from employers where the applicants have worked with children, nominated referees are interviewed and written references are completed, the applicants are assessed on their interaction with children. And a big part of this assessment is probing into the views of the applicants on those of different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds to themselves.
Personally, I had to come up with examples of times that I had worked with people from different backgrounds to my own, and demonstrate my willingness and ability to cater for the needs of children whose cultural needs might be completely different from my own, including cooking for special diets, providing for particular religious observances and so on.
Once carers begin fostering, social workers visit regularly and complete a checklist including evidence that the children's cultural and ethnic needs are being met.
I guess my point is this: it's not being a member of a certain political party that makes you racist, it's being racist that makes you racist! And the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The carers in this case were described by Rotherham social services as providing a good standard of care. As far as I can tell from what I have read and heard, there was no actual evidence that these children's cultural needs were not being met in this placement. If that turns out to have been the case, then what does it matter what their political affiliation is?
Of course, we know that there had been problems before. Rotherham social services had previously been criticised in court for not taking the children's ethnic background into account during previous proceedings. Maybe the kneejerk reaction to the "tip-off" about UKIP is more understandable in the light of that information.
And by the way, what level of busybody do you have to be to "tip" social services off about such a thing?!
But I digress . . .
At face value, this decision seems to me to be a ridiculous one. Of course, I don't know all of the facts, and we never will, because details of individual children's cases are not discussed in public, quite rightly. But the truth is that as long as maintaining children's links with their cultural and ethnic identities is part of policy surrounding children's social care, and as long as individual branches of social services are expected to interpret that policy in the way they see fit, then we will continue to see decisions like this.
No doubt there will be changes now - Michael Gove is already trumpeting new guidelines that will alter the way ethnic and cultural identity is weighted in fostering and adoption. I hope he doesn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Cultural and ethnic identity is important to children and young people. While I agree that children shouldn't be left languishing in inappropriate care settings while waiting for foster carers and adopters that fit the right profile, some attention should be paid to maintaining children's cultural identity wherever possible.
In the meantime, I hope that those who have authority to speak in this area can press home the need to assess the ability of foster carers to provide for children by the quality of that provision, rather than by checking out their political affiliations and making assumptions. It is dangerous to assume that you know what someone believes based on who they associate with. It is even more dangerous to assume that you know exactly how those beliefs will influence their behaviour. I believe it's called prejudice.