A political firestorm has kicked off in the U.K. after a middle-aged couple had three foster children from minority backgrounds taken out of their care last week because local social workers had learned of the couple’s political affiliation.
The couple, who have not been named in order to protect the children’s identities, live in Rotherham, a town in South Yorkshire, England, and had been caring for the three siblings since September. An anonymous tip informed local council services that the couple were members of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), a political group that campaigns for Britain’s secession from the European Union and restricting immigration. The couple told the Telegraph that when they questioned the children’s social worker and an official from their fostering agency about why the children were being removed, they were told that UKIP has “racist policies.” The couple is in their late 50s; she’s a nursery nurse and he’s a retired member of the Royal Navy. They’ve been caring for foster children for the past seven years, and both expressed anger over the way they have been treated. The husband told the Telegraph, “If we were moving the children on to happier circumstances, we would be feeling warm and happy. To have it done like that, it’s beyond the pale.”
The head of children’s services for Rotherham, Joyce Thacker, appeared on the BBC on Nov. 24 to defend the council’s decision. While she admitted that it was not council policy to remove children from homes based on the political views of the caregivers, she added, “We have to take each case on its merits.” She noted that the children are the offspring of European immigrants, and ethnic minorities and social workers had been particularly concerned that the children’s “cultural and ethnic needs” would not be looked after. Thacker also went on to add that the three children — a baby girl and an older boy and girl — were only temporarily placed with the couple in September. After being tipped off about the couple’s UKIP membership, social workers decided that an early removal would be best — despite the fact that there “was no question over the quality of care.”
UKIP describes itself as a libertarian party and has been, at times, controversial in the U.K. Among other things, the party advocates that Britain should withdraw from the E.U. and that there should be severe curbs on immigration. More relevant, however, are the statements in the party’s political manifesto that proclaim: “Multiculturalism has split our society.” It was this belief in particular that led Thacker to believe: “We had to seriously think about the long-term needs of the children.”
Roger Stone, the leader of Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, said in a statement to TIME on Nov. 26 that “membership of UKIP should not bar someone from fostering. The Council places the highest priority on safeguarding children, and our overriding concern in all decisions about the children in our care is for their best interests.”
Nevertheless, the political outrage over the move was swift. The leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, told the Telegraph that council’s actions revealed “political prejudice of the very worst kind” and that Thacker should lose her job “without any shadow of a doubt.” (Incidentally, a UKIP political candidate in London stoked the child-placement fire further by airing his own views that children shouldn’t be placed with gay couples because it’s not “healthy for a child.”)
One of the strongest critics of the decision to remove the children has been the Tory government’s Education Secretary, Michael Gove, who has called for an inquiry into how the council decided to remove the children. He told the BBC on Nov. 25, “This decision is arbitrary, ideological, indefensible.” Gove, who was adopted himself, added that the much-publicized move could be off-putting to those interested in becoming foster caregivers. “We need more parents to come forward to foster and adopt.”
Though the couple in question were aware that the placement would only be short term, the task of successfully placing children from minority backgrounds in adoptions has increasingly become a problem in Britain. Social workers are usually keen to place children with families of the same background. However, finding exact matches between children and prospective parents hasn’t been easy, and as a result, black children typically wait up to 50% longer to be placed than other children; this has prompted political pressure on local councils to ignore ethnic and racial matches in favor of finding loving homes.
While foster care is only a temporary placement, caregivers are still required to meet all the needs of the children in question. Unfortunately, the number of children who need care in the U.K. is climbing. It was reported earlier this year that the foster-care services in Britain were under excessive strain, with the number of children going into care in the previous year exceeding the 10,000 mark — the largest number of children entering care the country has ever seen.