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Identity, Intersectionality and Children in Care: The Case of Muslim-Heritage ‘Looked-After’ Children in the UK

Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 9)


Social work policy in the UK, and public discourse informed by this policy, insists that children need permanent and secure homes. In finding homes for children, preserving and nourishing their identities is prioritised. Faith can be a key aspect of children’s identities, yet there is limited research on faith considerations in the decisions and processes of finding permanent homes for vulnerable children. Focusing on the experiences of Muslim children in the care system, this chapter will begin a discussion about filling this gap in academic literature. There are approximately 4500 children of Muslim heritage in the care system in England and Wales, and this number is increasing. Through interviews with 41 social workers, foster carers, adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, and care leavers, this study presents a research-informed narrative of the layered and intersectional ways in which Muslim-heritage children experience and articulate their faith identities. The research findings presented in this chapter indicate that to ensure children’s well-being, social work practitioners and carers need to consider children’s identities in their entirety, including the dynamics influencing decision-making about their lives.


  • Muslim identity
  • Muslim-heritage children
  • Intersectionality
  • Social work
  • Adoption and fostering

Muslim-Heritage Children in Care

The most recent government statistics in the UK state that in the year ending the 31st March 2019, there were 78,150 children in care – continuing the increases seen in recent years (Department of Education, 2019). Our recent research suggests that there are at least 4,500 children of Muslim-heritage in care in Britain (Cheruvallil-Contractor et al., 2018). As discussed later, this number is at best an approximation, yet this figure provides a valuable starting point for the discussion in this chapter around faith identity, as well as larger discussions around specific provisions that need to be made with regard to these children.

We prefer the terms ‘children of Muslim heritage’ and ‘Muslim-heritage children’ over the term Muslim children. This framing allows a theoretical space within which ‘Muslim identity’ and ‘Muslim-ness’ can be understood in relation to children’s experiences. Our research shows that children construct their sense of identity from their biological parents, from social work professionals’ perceptions of Islam and Muslims and from adoptive parents or foster carers. By using ‘Muslim-heritage children’ over ‘Muslim children’, we at least attempt to resist falling into the trap of imposing our perceptions of Islam and ‘Muslim-ness’ on a child. Instead, we hope to create spaces where children can assert who they are.

Children of Muslim heritage come into care because their biological families have been unable to care for them. Reflecting trends in the wider looked-after children population in Britain, the vast majority have been taken into care due to various forms of breakdown within their biological families. The reasons that Muslim-heritage children come into care are the same as those of any other children: domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, parental or family dysfunction, absent parenting, and severe illness. In the UK, 18%, or only a minority of children, are given up voluntarily with consent from biological parents or are in situations where no parental responsibility exists. Therefore, most children of Muslim heritage are taken into care by the state under a care order, without the consent of their biological family.

Others will enter the UK as unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC). Recent statistics released by the UK government report that in the year ending 31st March 2019 there were 5,070 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, representing around 6% of all children looked after in England. Given current global politics, characterised by significant sociopolitical unrest in ‘Muslim contexts’, a significant number of these UASCs are of Muslim heritage. Like any other child in care, Muslim-heritage children will have diverse pathways to permanency (which means that they are placed long-term in either a family or institutional context). Some children may return to their biological families permanently or at least for a period of time. For a minority (less than 10%), adoption will mean that the children are permanently placed in new families. Other pathways to permanency include kinship care and special guardianship. However, for many Muslim-heritage children, they will be in foster care for varying periods.

In the UK, the overarching principle of child protection policy and procedures for adoption and foster placements is for the state to provide “stable, safe and secure homes which meet the whole needs of the child” (Newbigging & Thomas, 2011, 376). As this team has written elsewhere, in taking children into care, the state is using one of its most coercive powers to secure the welfare and well-being of the child (Cheruvallil-Contractor et al., 2018). In social work practice, this includes providing children with foster carers, adopters or carers who can facilitate their diverse religious and ethnic identities (Selwyn & Wijedesa, 2011). Whereas the Children’s Act 2014 removed from legal frameworks the need for ethnic matching between parents and children in adoption placements, our research shows that social workers continue to look for perfect or near-perfect ethnic and religious matches (Cheruvallil-Contractor et al., 2018). Furthermore, our research shows that children of Muslim-heritage thrive in home environs that understand and make space for children’s religious needs (Cheruvallil-Contractor et al., 2018, 2021) .

It is important to state that our research does not claim that Muslim-heritage children must necessarily be placed in Muslim homes. Instead, social workers should aim to achieve a child-led nuanced understanding of the diverse and complex ways in which children can identify with their religious heritage. In this paper, informed by our original research findings, feminist theorisations around intersectionality and geographical/disciplinary emphasis within British Muslim Studies, we will aim to achieve a multi-faceted understanding of the identity of Muslim-heritage children in care. We will interrogate how children’s diverse and intersectional identities shape their journeys through the care system and how their identity needs may be met. Faith is salient to the identities of Muslim-heritage children in care (Cheruvallil-Contractor et al., 2021). However, simplistic ‘black and white’ understandings of faith are inadequate to meet children’s needs. In this chapter, the authors propose a more nuanced approach that considers the ‘whole’ identity needs of a child.

Methodological Choices: Who Is a Muslim-Heritage Child in Care?

For this study, we were interested in exploring who is a child of Muslim-heritage in the care system. This meant answering questions around their lives and identities prior to their coming into care and then how these evolved while in care. Our research also required a deeper reflection on what the ‘Muslim-ness’ of a Muslim-heritage child entailed. What did it mean to be a Muslim-heritage child in social work care? What identities were inherent to a child for it to be considered as being of Muslim-heritage? Who decides these definitions and understandings?

In order to answer these less tangible questions around identity and by drawing upon the academic backgrounds of the investigators, this research is underpinned by a sociology of religion framework. In this chapter, the focus is on lived experiences of religion rather than on theological and textual framings of religious life. It is an interdisciplinary approach that works across disciplines to study religion in its social contexts, as experienced and negotiated by people within their identities, and communities (Furseth & Repstad, 2006).

Collaborative methodologies that aim to work ‘with and for’ research users were central to the study, and throughout, we consulted with frontline carers and social workers and drew upon their expertise. We took an ethnographic approach that positioned people – in this case, service providers, social workers, adoptive parents, prospective adoptive parents, policymakers, legal practitioners, foster carers, adult care leavers and their families – as the makers of meaning, holders of knowledge and negotiators of identity. The research was undertaken in three phases, all of which entailed different ways of answering the question – who is a Muslim looked-after child?

Also, inherent within this research is an emphasis on intersectionality, especially as discussed later in this paper, in relation to diverse British Muslim identities. The term “intersectionality” was coined by feminist scholars to illustrate the multiple realities and layered identities that are possible within everyday human existence (Brah & Phoenix, 2004; Crenshaw, 1989) and the interconnections between different social hierarchies that collude to either marginalise or privilege particular actors and voices in society. An individual’s identity is made up of a number of aspects – gender, ethnicity, religion, class, education, geographical location – that together determine how an individual is perceived and received by wider society, as well as how an individual perceives themselves. Theorisation around intersectionality provides a useful lens through which to understand the complex identities of Muslim-heritage children in care. Using an intersectional lens allows us to analyse what Muslim-ness means for diverse children, and how this might be taken into consideration in caring for the children.

The research was conducted in three phases. In the first phase, we used three datasets to estimate the number of Muslim children in the children’s care system in Britain. The stage raised important findings around the ethnic diversity of British Muslims. In the second phase, we undertook group discussions and interviews with social workers, adopters, prospective adopters, foster carers and care leavers to understand their perspectives on the experiences of Muslim-heritage children in the care system in Britain. Interviews and group discussions were semi-structured: rather than fixed questions, we used a set of themes to guide the discussion. In all, we spoke to 41 participants (Table 1 below contains a list of people we spoke to). Sample recruitment was through gatekeepers affiliated with adoption charities, voluntary / independent sector foster care providers and adoption agencies and local authorities. Publishing requests for participants in Muslim news outlets resulted in contact with individuals who had adopted or were considering adopting children of Muslim heritage.

Table 1 Interview/Group discussion participants

Fieldwork was conducted between May 2017 and March 2018 by this research team. The data collected was thematically analysed. As part of the discussions, among other things we investigated, was how the Muslim-ness of children was experienced and perceived by those caring for them.Footnote 1 We uncovered the nuanced ways in which children felt able or unable to articulate their faith and the myriad ways in which their faith identities were perceived. Our findings indicate a diversity of personal positionalities concerning faith, which stem from children’s upbringing prior to coming into care. We will discuss this in the next sections of this chapter.

In the third or final post-research dissemination phase of this study, we organised workshops with 100 social work practitioners across the UK, during the period from November 2019 to February 2020. These workshops were participatory and dialogical, in that the team shared research findings with children’s care professionals while also learning from their experiences. These workshops were constructed around case studies of the lived experiences of Muslim-heritage children in care whose stories were encountered within the research. In return, workshop participants shared stories of children they encountered in their professional practice. By focussing on lived experience, which is inherently diverse, we sought to move away from essentialist tropes of Islam and Muslims.

In this chapter, case studies from the research are used to achieve a nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the identities of Muslim children in care. All names are pseudonyms and to minimise the risk of identification, all identifying characteristics have been anonymised. The research was conducted after securing ethical approval from Coventry University. There is a growing drive to listen to children in social work research in Britain (Roberts, 2017). However, for this research, largely due to ethical considerations around their well-being, we did not speak to any children under the age of 18. Looked-after children already face lines of questioning of numerous social workers, carers and others. Given that this research was the very first exploration of its kind and therefore of wide scope, the team felt that it was unnecessary to subject children to a further line of complicated questions. Now that this study has established a threshold for academic understandings of children’s lived experience of faith, we hope to work directly with children on specific lines of enquiry.

Recognising the Diversity of British Muslim Communities

Research about the experiences of Muslim children in the social care system in Britain is almost non-existent (Miller & Butt, 2019). Literature on Muslim children in the care system is further challenged by contested views among Muslims on adoption. With the exception of Indonesia, Malaysia, Somalia, Tunisia, and Turkey, the laws of most Muslim majority states do not currently permit legal adoption. Instead, in some Muslim majority countries, laws permit a system of guardianship (kafāla), which resembles foster-parenting but is more stable (Better Care Network, 2011, 6). Kafāla is defined as the commitment to voluntarily take care of the maintenance, of the education and of the protection of a minor, in the same way a parent would do for a child. This type of guardianship does not sever the biological family bonds of the child or alter the descent lines for the adopting family. From this backdrop and subject to further research, it is argued here that experiences of Muslim children in care remain thin. In this section, we contextualise the experiences of Muslim-heritage children within the broader narratives of Islam and Children’s social work in Britain.

A cumulative view of diverse and intersectional British Muslim identities is essential to mitigate the dual risks of essentialisation and exceptionalisation within research about Islam and Muslims. It is beyond the scope of this paper to provide an extensive overview of British Muslim communities (Gilliat-Ray [2010] and Weller and Cheruvallil-Contractor [2015] offer detailed explorations). However, here the authors provide an outline of relevant contextual information within which the journeys of Muslim-heritage children in the UK can be situated. According to the 2011 census, just under three million people or 4.8% of the entire UK population identify as Muslim. For many of these Muslims, intersectionality is key to their understandings of identity:

For many Muslims living in Britain, the identity label of Muslim coexists with others that denote, for example, their national belonging (British, Scottish, Welsh or Irish); their own or their ancestral national and ethnic origins (South Asia, Middle East, Africa or South East Asia); their “race” gender, political leanings, specific forms of Islamic belief (Sunni or Shi’a, Barelwi or Deobandi); and the extent of their religious practice (practicing, believing, non-practicing, cultural or non-religious). (Weller & Cheruvallil-Contractor, 2015, 307–308)

Due to colonial history and subsequent patterns of migration, the majority of Muslims, just over two-thirds, have a family heritage in the Indian Subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) with the remaining third of the population being a veritable reflection of the diverse Muslim world (MCB, 2015). More recent migration from the Middle East and North Africa has led to increased ethnic diversity within British Muslim communities. Barelwi, Deobandi and Tablighi Jamaat movements that originate in the Indian sub-continent are numerically strong and socially significant (Raza, 1992; Robinson, 1988), although these are by no means the only denominational groups. There is a growing Salafi presence in many British Muslim communities as well as growing Shia communities in London and Birmingham. Furthermore, according to Census 2011, the British Muslim population is young – just over two-thirds of these young Muslims are under the age of 34. Many young people are less fixed in their notions of denominational affiliation and take a more ecumenical approach to intra-faith differences (Scott-Baumann et al., 2020). This ethno-religious diversity is significant for understanding the identities of children in care and where they are placed for their care. For example, an African-Somali heritage child would struggle to understand cultural practices in a South Asian heritage home.

As noted by Gale and Hopkins “the Muslim population [in Britain] is not only predominantly urban, but overwhelmingly concentrated in just a few cities.” (Gale & Hopkins, 2009, 7) Concerns about ethnic and religious segregation have uncovered patterns of ‘Muslim segregation’, where Muslim communities may often live in urban clusters around local mosques, madrassas, halal food outlets and other amenities that are necessary for religious life (Peach, 2005; Phillips, 2015). Ali (2015) however, in her Muslim-focussed analysis of Census 2011 data, challenges the stereotype of self-segregating BME communities and notes the increase in residential integration. Nevertheless, the concentration of British Muslim communities in and around urban centres has important safeguarding ramifications for Muslim-heritage children placed in foster or adoptive homes. If they are recognised, this could put the placement in jeopardy.

Another important consideration in the placement of Muslim-heritage children is the diverse ways individual Muslims practice Islam in their ways of believing and levels of religious practice. For instance, for some Muslims, faith is a central aspect of their lives and identities, whereas for others, religion is on the periphery of their lives. Bowen writes about ‘observing’ and ‘practising’ Muslims (Bowen, 2007). Whereas the former may fast in Ramadan, occasionally pray and usually eat only halal food, the latter are stricter in their religious practice – they pray regularly and dress in “Islamic attire” (Bowen, 2007). Although Islam is usually positioned as a religious standpoint, for some Muslims, it can be more of a cultural identity rather than of a religious one (Cheruvallil-Contractor, Forthcoming). When placing children into foster or adoptive homes, it is important to consider what levels of religious practice the children were accustomed to in their biological homes.

Muslim identity is constructed through negotiations across ethnicity, religion and culture, leading to multiple forms of Muslim lived expression (Ross-Sheriff, 2017). By achieving an understanding of Islam as a dynamic discourse with varying ethnicities, levels of religious commitment, cultures and religious practices, child service practitioners will have a better understanding of how to care for children (Gilligan & Furness, 2006). It is such an understanding that this chapter seeks to construct and promulgate.

‘Counting’ Muslim-Heritage Children in Care

As already mentioned, on 31st March 2019, there were 78,150 looked-after children in England, of which our research suggests that approximately 4,500 are of Muslim heritage (Cheruvallil-Contractor et al., 2018). Data shows that both numbers are increasing. Whereas the first number (the total number of children in care) is the outcome of an annual survey conducted by the UK government and is therefore fairly accurate, the second number is the result of triangulation and is, at best, an approximation. Understanding how we arrived at this number is important in recognising the significance of ethnicity for British Muslim identity. Moreover, recognising the gaps in our data, and therefore possible flaws in our calculation, underpins the urgent need for data around the religious heritage of looked-after children in the UK.

The UK government includes a question about ethnicity in its annual SSDA903Footnote 2 census of looked-after children, but it does not include a question about religion. So, we know the numbers for ethnic backgrounds of children with reasonable accuracy. Since 2001, the UK census has included a question about religion, which gives us a broad understanding of the relationship between ethnicity and religion. Finally, although the government does not ‘count’ the number of Muslim children in care, local authorities often, but not always, hold this data within local records.

We attempted to access this local data through Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to 22 local authorities in the Midlands of the UK. As local authorities are not required to collect data on religion and language (Selwyn et al., 2010), there is a lack of consistency in recording information on black and minority ethnicity children entering the care of the local authority (Barn et al., 1997; Huggins, 2012; Lowe & Murch, 2002). In the end, we decided to draw upon the precedence of using ethnicity to ‘count’ the number of Muslims and other ethnic minority religious groups prior to the 2001 inclusion of religion within the national census (Peach, 1990). A process of triangulation was used to approximate the number of Muslim-heritage children in care, by comparing data on ethnicity and religion from the UK Census 2011, the national census of looked-after children and the limited data we collected through our FOIs.

This figure may increase due to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) (5,070 in 2019) often being of Muslim heritage, which was confirmed by our qualitative data. For example, while interviewing the UASC manager at a local authority children’s care service provider, we attempted to identify religious identity by examining the ethnicity and first namesFootnote 3 of the UASCs who were under the care of this local authority. Furthermore, the manager, in her professional capacity, had personally interacted with the majority of these children and thus had first-hand information about their faith identities. Our examination concluded that 19 out of 25 UASCs (76%) in the care of this LA were of Muslim heritage.

In the context of human geography research and the complexities of everyday life, Harrowell, Davies and Disney (2018) write about the significance of failure. They argue that failure should be recognised as a central component of human geography research and indeed, all research. They encourage researchers to write “vulnerably” and to use failure proactively and provocatively as a “powerful resource to improve research practice and outcomes, reconsidering and giving voice to it as everyday, productive, and necessary” (Harrowell et al., 2018, 30). Within our research dissemination plans we use the lack of accurate statistical data on the religious heritage of looked-after children to lobby the government to include a question around religion in SSDA903 returns, and to work with social work practitioners to foster deeper and more nuanced understandings of the faith-identities of looked-after children.

The emphasis on ethnicity in national statistics can translate into how children’s needs are met. For example, during interviews a devout Muslim care leaver told us how she and her brothers were placed in South Asian Hindu and South Asian Sikh homes. While the children were reasonably comfortable and secure, there was no provision for their faith needs which led to them feeling frustrated and unable to settle. When they requested to be moved, a social worker working with them commented that “But aren’t you South Asians all the same?”. This case is discussed in detail in other work (Cheruvallil-Contractor et al., 2018, 2021). However, we cite it here to argue that data can often lead practice, even where the data is limited. This is echoed by Tamsin Yawar, who writes that when Muslim-heritage children are classed as black or Asian this can undermine their identity and hinder reunion. According to her, “Matching religion is especially important for Muslims.” (1992, as quoted in Selwyn et al., 2010)

The manager of an Independent Fostering Agency (IFA) that primarily works with children of Muslim and Christian heritage spoke to us about the need to have a clearer sense of the number of children involved. This IFA has been successful in recruiting Muslim and Christian carers and have successfully placed hard-to-place children in long term foster homes. In the quote below, he reflects about the importance of faith in helping children settle into a foster placement, while also articulating his concern about the lack of exact numbers, which hampers his team’s ability to plan for the future:

We work within an ethos that bears in mind children’s faith needs, and we find that our approach helps children settle down sooner. Our work has been commended and encouraged by a number of local authorities, even those outside of the Midlands. But without a sense of the numbers of children we do not know where and how we should expand our work.

In this section, we have discussed the politics and complexities of attempting to count the number of Muslim-heritage children in the care system in the UK, and the significance of ethnicity in determining how and where children’s needs are met. We were transparent about the flaws in our methods, but are hopeful that our failure can lead to better data and therefore better provision for these children. In the next section, we use our qualitative data to explore further aspects of Muslim heritage in children’s intersectional identities.

More than Religion and Ethnicity: Further Aspects Complicating the Identity of Muslim-Heritage Children

We start this section with a case study from our qualitative fieldwork. Laura, a white, nominally-Christian woman, is a highly experienced foster carer. She has been a foster carer for over 25 years, and during this time the majority of children she cared for were of Muslim-heritage. So much so, that she has become the ‘Muslim-expert’ foster carer for the local authority, both through personally fostering Muslim-heritage children as well as through the professional advice which she freely and happily offered to other foster carers in relation to the needs of these children. She also had close links to her local Muslim community, established through taking a number of children over the years to the local mosque. She told us about two unrelated teenage Muslim males – Bilal and Waheed, both of Afghan heritage, who were placed with her at around the same time. As she always did, she took the two children to the mosque to introduce them to the local Muslim community. However, she immediately noticed that each child reacted differently to the mosque and its community. Whereas Bilal enjoyed the visit and said he would go back soon, Waheed withdrew and was silent throughout the visit. Being an experienced foster carer, she realised something was amiss and spoke to Waheed at length, to understand the reasons for his clear reluctance to engage with the mosque community. She discovered that he had been brought up within a secular family that had very little affinity to organised religion. She realised that Waheed had different needs, and so organised other activities and community links for him. Due to their similar ethnic and religious backgrounds, both boys grew to like each other. They spoke the same language and developed strong bonds with each other, but while in her care they retained their different attitudes to religion.

In her interview with us she reflected on how despite both being of Muslim and Afghan heritage and similar age, these two children had very different upbringings and therefore very different identities and care needs. Whereas prior to coming into care, Bilal had been brought up in a home where religious and cultural practices relating to Islam were upheld, Waheed had had a largely secular upbringing and only nominally identified as Muslim.

The experience articulated in this anonymised case study demonstrates the need for understanding the intersections between religion and other aspects of a child’s identity. Both children had different reactions to the mosque, which stemmed from how they were brought up in their biological homes, and the level of religious commitment and practice in their lives before coming into care. We have also encountered stories of young people who have suffered victimisation and abuse from abusers who described themselves as religious or Muslim. When taken into care, such children may insist on completely eschewing religion from their lives. Applying an intersectional lens, it becomes clear that, in addition to ethnicity and religion, the ‘ways of believing’ or ‘level of commitment to religion’ also determined how children needed to be cared for and also in this case, largely due to Laura’s experience, what care they were given. In our research, we have encountered numerous stories of young Muslims in care who, due to the nurturing of their religious identity they received in their foster homes, have established bonds of attachment with their foster carers. We have also encountered cases where their faith needs have not been met.

In our fieldwork, other identity considerations came up. Male and female experiences of religion were different. This is due to how cultural and religious practices around Islam are gendered within communities. Whereas in religious families, both boys and girls will attend madrassah (or religious school), in some communities, boys will have more access to mosques and congregational prayer than girls. According to a report published in 2017, 28% of mosques in Britain do not offer facilities for women, and up to 50% of all South Asian-run mosques do not accommodate them (Muslims in Britain, 2017). Even where mosques offer space to women, this might be withdrawn for the weekly Friday congregational prayers, or it might be frowned upon within certain communities for women to attend. Some girls will have been accustomed to gender segregation in some social contexts. Others will not have experienced gender segregation at all. Some girls will have experienced Islam as egalitarian and equal, while others will have experienced patriarchy (Cheruvallil-Contractor, 2012). These two narratives of Islam are antithetical to each other, yet in relation to the lived experiences and care needs of the child or children narrating them, both may be true and need to be accounted for in the decisions that are made for these children.

In making decisions around incorporating issues of faith within looked-after children’s care needs, our research shows that it is important to consider the child’s age. A baby or a younger child will have very little comprehension of his or her faith heritage, and its identification with a particular faith largely stems from its parent’s choice to give it a faith identity. An older child will have more comprehension of his or her faith, but more so in relation to cultural practices rather than the tenets of faith. Depending on attitudes to faith within their biological families, teenage children may have more developed and possibly textual and theological understandings of their faith.

In British social work practice, when a child is taken into care, its biological parents’ preferences continue to hold weight in law and practice, unless the child is adopted, in which case parental rights are transferred to the adoptive parents. If a biological parent stipulates that the child is Muslim and should be placed in a Muslim home, social workers will include this request within their decision-making on providing looked-after care. In contrast, in the United States of America, there are more complex negotiations, as the care system has considerably more non-profit religious organisations providing foster care and adoption services (Rotabi et al., 2017). If these faith organisations are in public-private partnerships, while many do hire qualified social workers, they are not required by law to do so which may result in a lack of agency expertise in understanding the religious beliefs and values of Muslim-heritage children (Rotabi et al., 2017). Moreover, although legislation states it is a violation of rights to try to convert a child from Islam to any other religion (Article 14 of the CRC [Convention on the Rights of the Child]), according to Eby et al. (2011), as some Christian foster families are motivated by their faith to foster, the possibility of foster families attempting to convert a child of Muslim heritage to Christianity is still present.

Due to the diversity within Islam and Muslims in Britain, intra-faith relations between different Muslim denominational groups can, on occasion, be fraught and tense. For example, tensions can exist between Sunni and Shia groups or between more literal Salafi or Wahhabi groups and more mystically-informed Sufi groups. In our research, we encountered the story of a Sunni Muslim child being placed in a Qadiyani home. Qadiyanis are a sect of Islam which Sunni Muslims largely see as heretic. Qadiyanis are banned from performing the Hajj and in many countries face persecution from Sunni Muslims. When this Sunni child was placed in a Qadiyani foster home, he encountered prejudice and discrimination. Ultimately social workers moved him to a different foster placement. Pitcher and Jaffar (2018) relate a similar story that they encountered in their research.

A final aspect of children’s intersectional identity is their culture. By culture, this research alludes to the social and communal norms within which they have been brought up, and which are not always rooted in religion. In our research, we came across children who were branded as troublemakers because they ate with their fingers and insisted on sitting on the floor while eating, instead of sitting at the dining table. Culture is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional phenomenon, and cultural impact can range from language to food choices, attitudes, worldviews, and even entertainment preferences.

This section draws upon qualitative data to discuss a Muslim-heritage child’s identity in relation to its ethnicity, commitment to faith, gender, age, denominational affiliation and culture. There may well be other significant aspects of a Muslim-heritage child’s identity that we have not discussed here.

Implications for Social Work Practice

This research shows that Muslim-heritage children’s identity is strongly related to faith. To meet their care needs, social work practitioners need to consider all aspects of their identity (including faith) when deciding how these children should live their lives. Social workers’ case recording of basic details such as a child’s ethnicity, religion, and culture, affect policy initiation, planning and outcomes at every level of the care system. Social workers’ familiarity with the implications of faith in identity formation might also help in adoption planning for minority ethnic children.

One implication is for greater consideration to be given to the positionality of social workers, including ways to decolonise social care practices. If social workers are approaching religion through a white Christian and/or secular framing this may limit their ability to recognise and provide support for the child to understand his or her own life story (Furness & Gilligan, 2010). For example, in one of our case studies, a social worker noted that at a looked-after-child review, there was uncritical examination by the review panel of why a teenage Muslim girl stopped wearing her hijab within a few weeks of her foster placement. Rather than inquiring about other possible causal factors, such as being the only Muslim girl in a predominately white community, this act was seen by the panel as signifying progression. This may or may not have been the case, but social workers presupposing that the removal of the hijab was agentive disregards what some children of Muslim heritage could gain from their faith practices, as well as from their notions of political rights and self-determination.

Another barrier in delivering the appropriate support for Muslim children in care, foster carers and adopters is the inadequacy of training for social workers on the pervasiveness of Islam in forming identity (Gilligan & Furness, 2006; Modood, 2005). Several studies found Muslim identity is constructed through traversing and transforming race, religion and dominant cultural boundaries to create multiple forms of Muslim lived expression (Chaney & Church, 2017; Ross-Sheriff, 2017). Training programmes that saw the reimagining of Muslim beliefs as diverse contextual expression could assist social workers in challenging biases and misinformation on Islam and adoption, which remains a contested interpretation within Muslim communities (Frazer & Selwyn, 2005). Learning how to navigate Muslim beliefs and ethnicity in a British context would see child social care professionals making decisions on the adoption and fostering of Muslim children that are more reflective of the importance of Muslim communal values (Al-Krenawi & Graham, 2003; Barise, 2003, 2005; Carlson et al., 2005).

The lack of empirical research on the role of the social workers in translating faith practices and beliefs stymies their ability to deliver solutions that are transformative for the lives of Muslim children in the care system (Newbigging & Thomas, 2011). For social care practice to provide for the needs of children of Muslim heritage, it would benefit from an understanding that everyday religious practices are negotiations between multiple identities in different contexts (McGuire, 2008). Islam, in common with other faiths, is found in embodied practices and tangible manifestations of religious expressions. Therefore, the way Muslims dress, eat, are educated and even play, becomes, over time, a form of worship or an expression of spirituality. It is not enough to ask social workers and foster carers to adjust their practices to accommodate Muslim-heritage children without interrogating what that looks like in lived practices. Social care policy needs to respond to the way religions shape and are shaped by the ordinary and everyday ways, in which they are lived, experienced and perceived. Building on this, social workers need to recognise that far from being deterministic, religious identities are continually evolving in response to religious and cultural norms. Such a reflective professional stance in relation to Islam or indeed, any religion could lead to a more appropriate provision which meets children’s needs.

Finally, it is important to return once again to the issue of lack of data on the religion of looked-after children. Measures to introduce greater information gathering about Muslim looked-after children will address the inconstancy Selwyn and Wijedesa (2011) noted between local authorities with the recording of data on the religiosity of children in care. This means that local government responses to Muslim children’s needs are guided by individual perceptions rather than collective responses which identify the level of Muslim orthopraxis of religious beliefs in order to meet the needs of the family (Chaney & Church, 2017). A key recommendation for social work policymakers in the UK is that they include a question about religious heritage in the annual statistics for looked-after children. Accurate statistics are essential for predicting and planning for the care needs of these children. Minimum standards for fostering require local authority fostering services to ensure sufficient numbers of foster carers so they can be responsive to current and predicted future demands on the service. Having a clearer sense of the numbers of Muslim children in care will have an immediate positive impact on the achievement of this standard.

Conclusions: Who Is a Muslim-Heritage Child?

Children need permanent and secure homes within which they can explore their identities and evolve as human beings, citizens and family members: homes in which they have a sense of security, continuity, stability and belonging. Recent UK government policy has tried to expedite the process through which permanent homes are found for children who cannot be looked after by their biological parents. In this chapter, in line with social work recommendations for homes that meet the ‘whole needs’ of the child, we have sought to explore the whole identity as a crucial part of the needs of a Muslim-heritage child.

As shown in our research, a Muslim child’s identity is made up of its faith in addition to a number of other aspects – here we have discussed ethnicity, ways of believing, age, gender, denominational affiliation and culture – constituting who he or she is. In order to meet the ‘whole needs’ of the child, it is important that social workers achieve child-led narratives of their identities to understand their care needs. This does not require new classifications within social work or significant new training on religious literacy. Instead, we recommend that social workers raise their religious literacy through normal discursive processes of dialogue and conversation with looked-after children and those who care for them. Through open discussions and a recognition of the complexities of everyday life, it should be possible to meet children’s diverse needs. Such an approach prevents the essentialisation or homogenisation of Muslim-heritage children as having to meet a particular pre-determined set of criteria. This is a complicated stance which requires reflective practice yet will allow for more dialogic and less didactic evaluations of children’s whole needs and subsequently provision for these needs.


  1. 1.

    This chapter includes both new, previously unseen data as well as data that was used in our research report and other publications. Where we use previously cited data, we do so within new analytical paradigms.

  2. 2.

    The SSDA903 return collects information about looked after children in the UK. It should be completed for every child in care.

  3. 3.

    Second names and addresses where children lived were masked from the researcher to protect children’s anonymity.


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Correspondence to Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor .

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Cheruvallil-Contractor, S., Halford, A., Phiri, M.B. (2022). Identity, Intersectionality and Children in Care: The Case of Muslim-Heritage ‘Looked-After’ Children in the UK. In: Schmid, H., Sheikhzadegan, A. (eds) Exploring Islamic Social Work. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 9. Springer, Cham.

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