A ferocious debate has unraveled through the news this week challenging the importance of cultural familiarity and shared language for children in the care of the state. Whilst the UK media has approached these issues as a national crisis in child-care, it is hard to ignore the parallels that form with common criticism in the international volunteering sector.
The Telegraph newspaper broke a story, threading together social services reports, private sources and court hearings. They released news of a 5-year-old, white, Christian girl, who had been placed in the care of a foster family, of Muslim heritage. As other media outlets caught up, a series of accusing catch-phrases became common cause.
The family had ‘not spoken English in the girl’s presence’ and ‘allegedly encouraged her to learn Arabic.’ Outrage became evident at the lack of consideration for the girls cultural background in assigning her carers. Authorities leapt to self-defend, highlighting the priority the UK Government places on giving “absolute consideration to our children’s background and to their cultural identity” and ensuring ‘as much stability in care as possible.’ 5
Reading those final statements, I felt myself snort slightly and extract for inspection the phrase “our children.” I instantly assume that to mean citizens of the UK, as for myself a researcher and worker in the field of cross-cultural volunteering in child-care, I would suggest the UK Government places very little if any, priority on either stability or children’s background when those children are not ‘ours.’
Each year the UK Government allows, and proactively contributes via ICS and DfID state funding, to a staggering 1.6 million volunteers undertaking placements in over 90 countries world-wide1. Most commonly unskilled and in-experienced young people are drawn to undertake child-care work for children living in ‘orphanages’ or without safe family homes 2. Caring for children who happen to be residing in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but with circumstances and vulnerabilities reflecting exactly those of our 5-year-old foster child here in the UK. Volunteers are drawn in by the advertised good they can achieve providing ‘essential physical contact,’ ‘playing the role of Aunty and Uncle,’ using their own background to ‘open the children’s minds to new cultures,’ and ‘teach in English.’ 4
Turn that around to apply to foreign workers, without a word of English, being sold, (and I mean sold in an industry with an estimated worth of £6 billion 3) the opportunity to do that for “our” children living in care here in the UK. Ask yourself what the Government, let alone The Telegraph would have to say about that?
My point here is not to state whether cultural diversity, learning other languages and exposure to change is either good or bad for children. But simply to state that, whatever we do believe, which-ever consensus of outrage or good practice we sign up to, should apply equally to all children living in care, be they ‘ours,’ or not. In fact, Article 2 of the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (a legally binding provision for all countries except Somalia and the USA 6) declares that states should apply standards of rights equally to all of the worlds children, without discrimination based on location. The UK government paid little attention to this when we wrote to them in 2015 asking why International Volunteer Organisations operating from the UK were able to provide carers for vulnerable children overseas, without even so much as a sex offenders register check. To do such work in the UK, there is a demand for an average of 36 child protection procedures before access will be granted to the UK’s most vulnerable 7. But then of course, they are ‘ours,’ and not the unspecified other that fall outside our remit of care, something Justine Greening kindly reminded us of in her response to our letter.
Here at The Seaver Foundation, we do not distinguish. We apply our principles universally to every child, be they from Surrey or Syria, Teeside or Tijuana. Our research actually supports the benefits of cross-cultural caring for children. Given the right caution and pace of the process (including the appropriate checks and procedures), children can enjoy learning other languages, embrace the insight in to new cultures, and adapt surprisingly well to staggered attachments. It is only by talking directly to the children at the heart of this experience, that we have become able to unveil these benefits, as well as the real risks a culturally transient life in care can bring.
And with that, we conclude by reserving judgment in outrage or defense to the case of our 5-year old foster child. We cannot add to the plethora of professional speculation, knowing that the only true expert in the effects of this experience, is the young girl herself. Only when the journalists, judges and social workers slow to take heed of this, will they truly understand what is the best course of action for all of our children.
By Eleanor Seaver of The Seaver Foundation: Children’s Voices in Action
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- Tourism Research and Marketing Statistics, 2008
- Holmberg, 2014; Mostafanezhad, 2013; Sin, 2010
- Right Now, 2014; Wearing and Grabowski, 2011
- www.projects-abroad.co.uk; www.volunteerhq.org; www.originalvolunteers.co.uk
- www.telegraph.co.uk; www.independent.co.uk; www.bbc.co.uk; www.metro.co.uk
- Seaver, 2015