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Will Tuckley: we had to challenge The Times to protect foster carers

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 Last month the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) upheld our complaint against an article in The Times about a foster case.

The situation demonstrated just how limited local authorities are when it comes to the reporting of these cases, and how the media must therefore take great care in covering such stories.

While the ruling by the IPSO is helpful, the reality is that damage has been done to foster care.

An even sadder reality is that, had the family court not taken the unusual step of publishing its court order as a result of the media coverage, we would not have even been able to make a complaint as the facts would have remained behind closed doors.

This all started last August when The Times splashed allegations on three consecutive front pages. The first headline was ‘Christian child forced into Muslim foster care’.

The piece contended that as the child was of Christian faith it was wrong to place her with a Muslim foster carer, that the foster carers were providing a poor level of care – for example not speaking English in the home, forcing the child to learn Arabic, and forbidding her from eating bacon – and that the council was preventing the child from going into the care of her grandmother.

From the start we had serious concerns about the validity of the allegations. However, we could not provide any balance because local authorities are bound by legal restrictions which prevent giving details of cases.

Fostering experts such as government adviser Sir Martin Narey and chief executive of The Adolescent and Children’s Trust Andy Elvin agreed the story did not ring true. For starters, it is a prerequisite for foster carers to speak English.

They also argued that although faith it is a very important consideration when making a placement, ultimately a warm and loving home is the most important factor.

Once the story was published, dozens of other media outlets copied it. Before long our complaints team had received 50 abusive phone calls, and 40 of our foster carers had spoken to us about their distress.

Fortunately, on the day the second story appeared, the family court judge took the decision to publish the court order. It gave facts that we could not provide, including that the child’s grandmother was of Muslim faith and living abroad; that the court-appointed guardian had found the foster carers to be providing a good level of care; and that the council had applied for the child to be moved to the grandmother, but had to make checks on her suitability which included hiring a translator.

Despite all of these facts being made public, The Times chose to run a third consecutive front page piece, with the headline ‘Judge rules child must leave Muslim foster home’.

There was now evidence in the public domain that the story was misleading. As a result, much of the general media coverage changed. And in October, a council investigation – ordered to be published by the family court – found all the allegations to be unsubstantiated.

In the interests of defending our foster carers, and fostering in general, we submitted complaints to IPSO for the third of The Times articles under the grounds of accuracy.

We also submitted a separate complaint for the use of a picture of the child and her foster carer taken from behind. We felt they could be clearly identified in our community as a result. The family court judge had also expressed concern at the pictures’ publication.

The complaints process is long and involves building a case and responding to the defences of newspapers concerned. Two weeks ago, IPSO upheld our complaint on the grounds of accuracy and found The Times article to be a distortion. However, our complaint about the photograph did not even make it to consideration by the panel.

Why? Apparently IPSO rules say the complainant has to be the primary carer at the time of its panel ruling.

So despite the child being in our care when the picture was published, we were disqualified from our complaint being heard once the child was moved out of foster care.

But foster care is by its very nature temporary, so it is difficult to see how a complaint could be followed through.

We have written to IPSO to point this out as having this complaint upheld could have set a precedent to protect other foster children and carers.

Will Tuckley, chief executive, Tower Hamlets LBC

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