Bristol parents getting visits from social services and police for taking kids on holiday
Members of Bristol’s Somali community have said the anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) campaign “is based on assumptions, misinformation and intimidation” which “targets and profiles certain ethnic groups” in Bristol.
The statements were made at a meeting of the Somali Parents Against Stigmatisation (SPAS) group, formed after the collapse of a recent anti-FGM trial at Bristol Crown Court.
The meeting aimed provide a platform for parents to share and discuss their experience of the anti-FGM campaign in Bristol and the impact it has had on the lives of their families.
Bristol Somali Media Group reported that a Somali mother, who has lived in the UK for 23 years, talked at the meeting about what happened when she told her child’s school she was taking her kids on holiday.
“My children were shocked”
“I booked holiday tickets for my children in 2016 and I informed the school by requesting an authorised absence of one week,” she said
“I had a phone call from a social worker who said that they, together with the police, want to talk to me before we go.
“But a lone male police officer with uniform visited us, who said that there was no social worker available to accompany him and that he wanted to talk about FGM, because we were going to Morocco.”
In a 2013 report by UNICEF Morocco was not reported to be a country were FGM was practiced.
She continued: “The police officer asked me to gather all the children as he wanted to talk to all of us, including the youngest daughter who was two-and-a-half years at the time.
“He then explained what FGM is and how women are cut to my children.
“My children were shocked. I have never told them about FGM because it is something that I have never intended to do to my daughters.
“My younger son said that he has never heard about women getting cut and questioned what it is being cut.”
On their return from holiday, the woman’s daughter started nursery – she said she received a call from nursery staff saying they had found blood in her daughter’s nappy. On arriving at the nursery staff had thrown the nappy away. The woman said she was forced to take her child to a doctor for an examination to prove her innocence.
“The doctor examined her extensively and said nothing had been done to this young girl, and he would write to the nursery.
“I have never touched my daughter, but they [nursery staff] just made excuses to examine my daughter. At the moment I have nightmares about going on holiday.”
The group started meeting following a collapsed FGM trial at Bristol’s crown court
“Their behaviour changed when they realised I was a nurse”
This is not an isolated incident. Sucdi Ahmed, a staff nurse at NHS Bristol, had a similar experience after filling out a holiday form with her child’s school.
“I was asked to come to the school when I completed the holiday form,” said Mrs Ahmed.
“I had a meeting with the head teacher and a safeguarding officer who talked about FGM and the law, but when I told them that I know about it very well, because I am a nurse, their behaviour changed.”
The school said they would refrain from referring her to the social services because she was a nurse but she asked to be referred anyway, to experience what other parents go through.
“Just two days before my flight, I had a knock on my door.”
Mrs Ahmed did not answer right away because she was busy and not expecting visitors. The pair waited on her doorstep for 30 minutes.
“I let them in after they identified themselves. A social worker and a plain-clothed police officer. I asked them why they had not make an appointment, but they said they had assumed that I will be in,” she said.
“They explained the reason of their visit and the consequences I will face if I cut my daughter.
“Then they demanded that I ought to sign a form and also sign on behalf of my husband who was at work. But their behaviour changed when I answered the last question about the profession, which made them realise that I was a nurse.”
FGM is a charged issue in Bristol
“The FGM campaign has been turned to a competition”
Writing in the Bristol Somali Media Group, Abdi Mohamed said: “The ‘oppressive and aggressive’ behaviour of campaigners and professionals has undermined the goal of the FGM legislation.
“The legislation was designed to protect children from harm and to uphold their human rights.”
Mr Mohamed said isolating communities and harassing families would achieve nothing and called for and evidence-based approach.
He continued: “Instead of engaging the community and building on what they have achieved over the last 35 years, the FGM campaign has been turned to a competition, a conviction trophy.
“The race to get the first conviction and achieving a landmark victory has not only damaged the spirit of the campaign to eradicate FGM but has damaged community trust too.”
“We may not have been proportionate”
Somali community members mer with police, councillors and child protection services at an Anti-FGM stakeholders meeting on April 3 at in Easton.
According to meeting notes: “Many people expressed the view that the Somali community in particular is being targeted and stigmatised by anti-FGM campaigning and investigations, it was likened to the Stop and Search which indirectly discriminated against Black young men.
“There was a view that pregnant Somali women are asked inappropriate and intrusive questions which are not necessary as they are not ‘at risk’”.
Families reported that safeguarding team members had come to their house and insisted they sign forms saying they wouldn’t get their daughters cut before going on holiday, and otherwise were threatened with having their passports taken away.
Superintendent Andy Bennett replied that: “It sounds like we may not have been proportionate in our response.”
He said he would re-look at how police handled the issue – with an evidence base. He agreed police needed to look at how they deploy officers to this sort of crime to avoid “collateral damage in the community”.
Alex Raikes from Stand Against Racism & Inequality (SARI) said that hate crime can occur when FGM becomes closely linked with particular communities and that there was need for proactive work to make communities safe.
As far as she is being told, the practice is not prevalent in Bristol within the longer standing Bristol Somali communities, but they are being targeted.
She said attitudes have changed in urban communities here, yet we have not changed our approach in line with these changes.
What the police say
Superintendent Andy Bennett, of Avon and Somerset Constabulary, said: “We are proud to have played a key role in the response both locally and nationally to raise awareness of, and to prevent, FGM.
“This work has been undertaken in collaboration with statutory agencies and affected communities and this partnership approach has been a critical factor in achieving the progress that has been made. We place great value in the strong relationships that have been built in tackling this issue together.
“Along with our partners we recognise the need to constantly examine and develop our professional practice. During the past twelve months we have worked with other statutory agencies and community representatives to refine our approaches and ensure that the response is proportionate to the level of risk identified. We have listened to the concerns expressed recently and will continue to seek the engagement and views of communities in improving our response.
“The safeguarding of children will remain our priority and we look forward to continuing to work together with partner agencies and all FGM affected communities in preventing FGM and securing the best outcomes for children.”
Response from Bristol Safeguarding Children Board
Sally Lewis, Independent Chair of the Bristol Safeguarding Children Board said: “The Bristol Safeguarding Children Board is proud to have supported the strategic response to ending Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and of the strong relationships we have built along the way. Throughout our many years of work on the important issue of safeguarding children from FGM that includes contributing funding to the 2017 End FGM Summer Campaign and Community Feedback Event, the Bristol Safeguarding Children Board and its constituent partners have welcomed the positive and constructive engagement of Bristol community groups and individuals.
“In recent weeks we have heard from a wide range of community members on their experiences of the current operational practice in this area of safeguarding. We have welcomed the challenge made by some groups as to whether our partnership approaches have been proportionate in delivering our shared commitment to children being safeguarded from FGM.
“In all areas of safeguarding it is important for us as a Board to review whether our statutory response to concerns are effective in keeping children safe from harm, and we have been working together closely over the last year to review how we work with families from FGM-affected communities. Professional practice in areas of safeguarding are always developing and improving to ensure that the best outcomes are achieved for children.
“We have heard the concerns shared at community meetings and some of these reflect our own identified areas for development in this important area of work. The BSCB is committed to working together to make these improvements. We are currently developing our FGM risk assessment tools to ensure that professionals are able to make more accurate assessments so that our collaborative safeguarding efforts are focused on the children who need it most. Furthermore we are reviewing the use of written agreements and organisations have committed to moving away from this approach not just in respect of FGM but other areas of safeguarding delivery.
“Whilst there will inevitably be some children in our city who we must take proactive steps to safeguard from FGM, our priority is and must continue to be, awareness raising and education. As a partnership we will continue to strive towards this goal and we look forward to our continued collaboration with communities and groups who provide such important feedback, support and challenge. Safeguarding is everybody’s business. We welcome the positive engagement of our communities in Bristol on this matter and see it as evidence of the Bristol public’s commitment to child safety. We are proud of our diverse city and when we work together on issues of concerns we will ensure that we achieve the best outcomes.”