spiked, 27 November 2012
The Rotherham foster family controversy has scandalised Britain. Understandably so. Rotherham council’s decision to remove three children from a fostering couple simply because the couple are members of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) reeks of a McCarthy-like political authoritarianism. It is not surprising that the decision has been slammed by the press as ‘ugly’, ‘poisonous’, ‘prejudicial’, ‘Orwellian’ and ‘arrogant’.
Yet this very reaction, not only from the press but also from leading politicians, who have described Rotherham council’s behaviour as ‘indefensible’, gives the impression that what happened in Rotherham was a one-off, an act of extremism by a crazy council. It wasn’t. Rather, the Rotherham mess is the logical conclusion to the ever-more embedded idea that the state should get to say who would make a good parent and who would not; that the state has the right to determine which political, cultural and lifestyle attitudes it is okay for parents to have and which ones it is not okay for them to have. It is this idea - promoted by some of the same people now getting irate over Rotherham - which leads to a situation where foster parents who have the ‘wrong’ views can have their kids removed.
The most striking thing about the Rotherham case is how open the council was about its prejudices. Usually, when councils want to take children away from parents whom they decree to be ‘undesirable’, they will draw up a list of often exaggerated physical or moral harms facing those children as a way of justifying their actions. But in this case, officials were explicit about the fact that these kids were being removed because of the foster parents’ political views. The council’s director of children’s services, Joyce Thacker, said that because the three children are of Eastern European origin, it would be wrong to leave them with foster parents who support a party that is anti-EU and critical of the ideology of multiculturalism. ‘If the party mantra is, for example, ending the active promotion of multiculturalism, I have to think about that’, she said. ‘I have to think of [the children’s] longer-term needs.’
In essence, Thacker is saying that anyone who is critical of multiculturalism is not fit to be a foster parent - or, by extension, a natural parent - because they might inculcate children with views that Thacker considers to be wrong, insufficiently multicultural. This isn’t the first time a council in Britain has removed children from parents or foster parents who are seen as having problematic cultural views. Earlier this year, Toni McLeod, a mother-of-four in Durham, had her children taken from her, partly because, in the words of Durham council, she had developed ‘inappropriate friendships [through] the English Defence League’, a small far-right political group. ‘Inappropriate friendships’ was clearly code for ‘inappropriate views’. Last year, Eunice and Owen Johns, a Derby-based black Christian couple in their 60s who had been fostering children aged between five and 10 for years, were told they were no longer suitable foster carers because of their views on homosexuality - that is, they had told social workers they would not teach children that homosexuality was an acceptable lifestyle.
When councils aren’t removing children from parents or foster parents who have ‘unhealthy’ political views, they’re taking them away from parents who are just plain unhealthy. Under the cover of protecting children from so-called passive smoking and even from the ‘influence of obesity’, more and more councils are refusing to place kids with anyone who smokes or is fat. Last year, a couple in Essex were rejected as foster parents after the aspiring foster dad admitted to having smoked two cigars in the previous year - under Essex council’s rules, foster parents must be ‘tobacco-free for 12 months’ before they can receive children. The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) advises that no child under two, and ideally under five, should be placed with families that include a smoker. One council in Scotland refuses to place children aged 11 or younger with smokers, and decrees that smokers must fully cleanse themselves of their filthy habit before they can foster young kids: ‘Foster carers who have successfully given up smoking should not be allowed to adopt or foster… until they have stopped smoking for a minimum period of 12 months.’
Fat people are also being denied the right to foster and adopt. The BAAF says being obese can ‘limit a parent or carer’s ability to look after a child’, and therefore, ‘practitioners need to consider obesity’ when placing children. Practitioners are doing this with relish. In 2009, a teetotal, respectable, long-married couple in their 30s in Leeds were told they were not suitable candidates for adoption because of the husband’s weight: 24 stone. Leeds Council informed the couple that people with a Body Mass Index of over 40 were ‘unlikely to be approved’ and therefore ‘[it would] be to your advantage to begin the assessment with an up-to-date medical where your BMI is clearly recorded as being under 40 and to demonstrate that you are able to maintain this weight loss’. In short, if you’re fat you don’t deserve kids; you’ll probably be too lazy and feckless to look after them properly.
These health judgements against aspiring foster or adoptive parents are also really judgements about cultural attitudes. Just as right-wing people and traditional Christians are denied the right to look after children because they’re seen as having the ‘wrong’ views, so fat people and smokers are forbidden from fostering because they have the ‘wrong’ attitude - they have failed to conform to the idea that every parent must be a super-fit, fruit-eating, multicultural, state-approved Decent Person. There’s a big class component to these judgements, too. If obesity and smoking, not to mention having supposedly un-PC views, are markers for being from a certain section of the working class, then the end result of these rules about who is and who isn’t fit to foster is that poorer people will be prevented from looking after needy kids - something that they have been helping society out with for decades.
The fact is that, for all these councils’ elitist, prejudicial judgements about what size, shape and political persuasion a foster or adoptive parent should be, around the country there are millions of natural parents who are overweight or who smoke or who have traditionalist, sometimes bigoted views that their children will either adopt or discard as they get older. Believe it or not, a fat dad who can’t run very far in the park can still be a brilliant dad; the mum who smokes 60 a day can still be a great mum; Christian parents who think homosexuals are weird can still provide loving homes for their kids. In only selecting for fostering or adoption those adults who conform to state diktats on health and PC and multiculturalism, various councils are starkly at odds with reality, with the fact that unhealthy, un-PC people are parents and are good parents to boot.
This is where we get to the nub of the Rotherham scandal and other recent efforts by officialdom to limit fostering and adoption to those people considered culturally acceptable: this is really about sending out a message to all parents, to natural parents as well as foster parents, about how they should behave and what they should believe. Increasingly, the worlds of adoption and fostering are being used as laboratories in which state officials can make clear what they consider to be a Good Parent. Because in this arena they get to select who can be a parent, they are seizing the opportunity to infuse parenting with their prejudices, to carve out a model parent - thin, tobacco-free, multiculturally on-message - whose image can be projected across society. Coupled with the state’s increasing cockiness in removing children from natural families that are considered ‘chaotic’ and its promotion of parenting classes for all natural parents, the use of the sphere of fostering and adoption to promote an idealised parent is strengthening the idea that the state should get to say what sort of people may have and bring up children.
This is all proving disastrous for children in need of care. It was reported last year that there has been a ‘steep rise’ in the number of children being taken away from their birth parents and put into care by the state, particularly following the Baby P tragedy of 2008, but that at the same time there is a ‘crisis in foster care’ because ‘tough guidelines [are] scaring off potential foster parents’. In short, the state is tearing apart more and more natural families, but it is then incapable of finding new homes for the children it removes because it is making foster and adoptive parents jump through so many lifestyle and cultural hoops. The state’s suspicion towards the family unit makes it take more children from their birth parents, and its distrust of potential foster parents means it finds it increasingly difficult to place those children in other family homes. So they languish in care, victims, primarily, of the vile prejudices and fears of our rulers.
Read more of my articles for spiked and other publications here.