The trial of Ahmed Hassan has raised a new question for the foster sector: how to protect children from radicalisation. Parents, particularly those looking after potentially traumatised children, face multiple challenges. Now, according to one fostering organisation, the sector must think more carefully about safeguarding their wards from radical ideologies.
Hassan, an Iraqi-born teenager living in Surrey, has been charged with attempted murder and causing an explosion in connection with the Parsons Green bombing, which injured more than 30 people last month. The 18-year-old lost his parents at a young age and reportedly blames Tony Blair for the devastation of his native country.
According to reports, Hassan was placed in foster care by Surrey County Council after arriving in the country two years ago unaccompanied. Penny Jones, 71, and her husband Ron, 81, looked after Hassan, and reportedly had no clue as to what he had been planning until armed police arrived at their house after the attack.
John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at the adoption and fostering academy CoramBAAF, argues this case highlights the need to train foster parents to spot the signs of radicalisation in order to safeguard often vulnerable children and young people from extremist ideologies. ‘I think the Parsons Green issue [has] certainly put it on the agenda: should foster carers be explicitly trained in Prevent?’ Mr Simmonds asks.
Prevent is the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy. It is designed to stop people from engaging in terrorist-related activities by tackling extremist ideas — whether these are in the form of salafi-jihadist ideology, inspired by Islamist groups such as ISIS, or white supremacist teachings as have been promoted by far-right groups like Britain First.
Mr Simmonds emphasises that Hassan was an unusual case and that there have not been many cases of radicalisation within the fostering sector. However, he warns that we must not be complacent. Better safe than sorry, is his philosophy.
He notes that Ahmed Hassan arrived in the UK as an unaccompanied asylum seeking child. It is important to be careful here. Most of these children have escaped dictators, terrorist organisations and failing states. They have struggled to the safety of Europe only to be met with racism and xenophobic political parties. It is easy for some to slip into the prejudiced mindset, based on a limited understanding of their backgrounds, that sees these children as ticking time bombs.
However, Mr Simmonds steers clear of this territory. His point is about providing foster carers with the necessary skills to cope with issues around radicalisation in general rather than stigmatising a particular group. And in an age when Islamist preachers and white supremacists have direct access to a child through the internet, this seems a reasonable concern. It’s a question of safeguarding.
‘The issue is are we being naive about this and are we being sufficiently robust in training and preparing and supporting foster carers in the potential risk that those young people might face us with,’ he explains. ‘I think there needs to be a sector wide debate to identify what the risk might be and whether we’ve currently got it right in terms of the work we do with foster carers and those young people.’
Mr Simmonds recognises there are risks involved in going down this road. Children in foster care have most probably been traumatised at some point in their pasts. Their new foster home is supposed to be a stable and, above all, safe place. For this reason, great care must be taken when extending safeguarding duties. ‘We want children to settle,’ he says. ‘We want that experience of being in foster care to move on from the experience that brought them into foster care in the first place.’
But the sector should not be naive, he thinks. There are all kinds of risks involved with fostering, such as violence and sexual exploitation, and dangerous ideas is just one more. ‘The issue of radicalisation, and being aware of the issue about radicalisation, is just one more issue that needs to be added to that list of risks.’