Welcome to NSPCC Learning, a series of podcasts that cover a range of child protection issues to hopefully inform, create debate and tell you all about the work we do to keep children safe. At the heart of every podcast is the child’s voice and how what they tell us informs the work we do.
Hi and welcome to the latest NSPCC Learning podcast. The programme you’re about to listen to is the fifth in a series of six podcasts on safeguarding in the voluntary and community sector or VCS for short and focuses on what safeguarding means to faith communities and groups.
Now faith plays a significant role in the lives of many children and young people and faith communities have a flourishing voluntary and community sector. They provide services and activities for children and young people which can range from childcare and baby-groups to sport, recreational and youth activities. Cate Meredith, one of the NSPCC’s Senior Consultants in the Safeguarding in Communities team talks to Shirley Maginley and Mike Williams about why it’s essential that faith groups understand their safeguarding responsibilities and rise to the challenges that safeguarding children and young people in their care brings.
Like Cate, Shirley is a Senior Consultant in the Safeguarding and Communities team and works closely with faith communities as well as black and minority ethnic communities. Mike is one of our Senior Evaluation Officers who works in the Evidence Team. Mike worked on a prevention project with the Somali community in London where faith has an important role to play in lives of the community members and so this is a really interesting podcast for professionals who are working with faith groups.
Cate began by asking Shirley about the important role faith communities play in people’s lives.
They provide essential services to the communities and families and being where they are placed, in a lot of instances, where a family, a parent, has a concern around a child, they are often likely to take it to people within their faith community – faith leaders, or someone else in a position of trust to discuss their concern with them. And it’s so important that those people within the faith group know what to do and how to respond to their concerns.
One of the things that we often talk about in relation to safeguarding is the development of a safeguarding culture; so, how can that be developed within a faith community?
All communities or all faith groups rather need to start from somewhere and they need to start with an acknowledgement that they have a duty and responsibility to safeguard children and then from there they will go on to develop their policies and procedures as a start.
Now we know as well, you know, it’s paper. Although it has very good guidance, some groups will just tend to [have it] their own paper, put it away in a filing cabinet, or, and maybe they’ll never see it again. And that’s not a safeguarding culture, just to have policies and procedures.
They need now to follow those procedures and policies, particularly when things don’t go… you know, when they don’t go well; when there’s a concern or an incident, they need to refer back to those policies to see now what we need to do, right?
They also need to have people within the organisation who have their safeguarding hats on all the time and this is not just the person who works with children and young people or it’s not even just a person who is the designated safeguarding role. We need everyone involved because everyone has their own right down to the volunteers, right up to the senior management and trustee level.
And when everyone has understanding about their duty and responsibilities in safeguarding children and what they need to do, then that safeguarding culture will begin to grow and be able to foster within the organisation.
Mike, thinking about the work that you did within the Somali community, were they some of the things that you observed when you were doing that work?
Yes, I think that one of the things that has come out of the research that we did was the importance of being able to acknowledge that abuse can take place within the community and that it can be perpetrated by people in authority positions, within the religious or community structure.
My sense is that the development of a safeguarding culture requires some degree of openness about the possibility of abuse happening within that community. This is something that some people within the Somali community found it difficult to accept, and there was a perception amongst some people that being devoted religiously in some ways resulted in God inoculating your mind against wanting to abuse children.
And so some people found it difficult to accept the idea that, for example, Quranic teachers could necessarily sexually abuse a child or even a relative who was religiously devoted could do that.
In the same way, some members of the community felt that by having children or when you have children, God would bestow upon you a sort of not wanting to abuse them; that it’s some kind of gift that God would give relatives in that respect.
So, for me, I feel that faith organisations and organisations more widely need to develop a discourse, which gently challenges this taken-for-granted assumption. And what we found was that Somali mothers, when we interviewed them, had some of the solutions to this problem because some of them presented a different narrative around the idea that whilst God may set expectations for a community, people are not always able or willing to meet those expectations.
And in that way, they found a way of protecting the values and reputation of their community whilst acknowledging that abuse could nevertheless take place. And I think that organisations can learn from that way of looking at it and if they can build a shared understanding within the community – a community narrative – which makes it acceptable, then I think it makes it much easier for people then to talk about reducing risks and for people to come forward when abuse has happened.
I totally agree. It’s wonderful if you can have that balance and that perspective, but so often, you know, we do hear that when things happen within the faith setting, those who are in charge are more likely to be more concerned around their reputation - how they are portrayed within the community.
So that can trump the concern around the child and that becomes second to their religion – to their practice – because they see that as ultimately that which must not be tarnished by even the notion abuse that could possibly happen here.
It’s about giving that perspective about what is most important and I always say, protecting the child is protecting the community. They need to understand. It doesn’t really conflict but it actually works together.
Shirley, Mike was talking about his experience in the work that he did with the Somali community and he talked about some of the struggles that some members of that community had in getting their heads around the idea that somebody within their community could do something like this to a child. Is that a phenomenon that you’ve noticed in other communities as well?
With religion because that whole link to God or that superior figure and the people who are the representatives here on earth, there’s a certain amount of trust and goodwill intention. So, it’s almost like an assumption or a given, you know, that if this person is a believer, there’s a certain goodness within them that may not be able to be corrupted and certainly abuse is very difficult to talk about and to deal with.
And to associate abuse with somebody who is like almost a godly figure, even if it’s just a worshipper, can be really difficult at times to deal with. And you know, when that happens, it can erode the trust that they have in the faith institution or maybe even their own worshipping experience and their relationship with their God; so, that’s very difficult, really.
When they put a human being in that sort of place and put them on that pedestal because at the end of the day, they are still human and they are still fallible to mistakes and we can’t really lose sight of that.
So faith institutions, yes, they do have their challenges around that, particularly when the abuse happens within the organisation – that can be quite difficult.
And is it your sense that that very level of trust within a community, particularly if a community is very reluctant to consider the possibility that somebody could harm a child; that very trust is something that then could be exploited by somebody who might have a motivation to abuse a child?
Oh absolutely, I mean we’ve heard enough stories about people who actually rely on that trust really as an enabling factor to groom children – to groom families – to even groom other people within the faith institution to carry out their abuse and that’s really sad when that happens.
I think I can imagine and also know from experience myself that where something has gone wrong in a community in that way, it can as you’ve both suggested be a very hurtful and hard and damaging thing for a community to come to terms with. How in your experience can a community learn from an experience like that and create a space for learning and reflecting in order to minimise the possibility that something like that could happen again?
It is about making some of your emotional and financial resource within an organisation available to reflecting on the possibilities of abuse within the community and accepting that abuse happens across all communities – that’s what the evidence suggests.
Clearly faith communities like any communities need to work within the law. What are the very essential things about the law around safeguarding children that you think faith communities need to be aware of?
I would always promote that if there is a dilemma between what the culture of the community is saying around what needs to be done and if that seems to contradict or not be complementary to what the law requires and that is, you know, report abuse, help a child – then the law of the land has to stand.
And people within faith communities and any organisation need to understand that. That they do have a statutory requirement to ensure that they have arrangements in place to safeguard children from harm.
And within organisational structure, there’s a few things that they need to do and certainly one of those things includes having written policies and guidance, having someone appointed, not just a person, more than one, I would recommend and at different levels of the organisation to have that much little more knowledge around safeguarding.
So they can be the go-to person within the organisation to make sure that things are on track and that people have, you know, any concerns or they need to have information, there is someone within the organisation to be able to signpost them and give them that advice.
Of course, that person will need training because we can’t expect people to know everything, so it’s so important that training can be accessed. And I know some groups do struggle because they don’t have the resources to have that regular training.
But it can be accessed online or from the local authority. Certainly at NSPCC, we have loads of elearning courses that are quite… fairly cheap so people can get that. And also, they also need to have a system so when things do go wrong people are able to speak about it, not just sit on it and cover that up.
It’s so important that people do learn from mistakes and they’ll be able to improve their practice from that. So it needs to have that learning culture as well as that safeguarding culture.
So in a sense what I’m hearing you say is that actually faith communities bring enormous strengths to the idea around safeguarding. And that there is so much that faith communities are doing already and have in place already perhaps linked to their beliefs and their religious tenets that actually will support safeguarding.
Oh absolutely. There are numerous strengths that faith communities can bring to the whole safeguarding agenda and discourse. They have a natural network and a supportive network for children and families. They have an idea that it’s their moral duty to look after each other, particularly the most vulnerable and we know children in our society can be counted as one of the most vulnerable.
So that’s already built in. There are some natural strengths that lend to safeguarding naturally, but the supportive structure is one of them; the space to talk and to… amongst other parents and families is there.
You have people who are a bit more knowledgeable. Their leaders should be in a position as well to offer good advice. We know sometimes that doesn’t always happen but certainly, every leader within a faith community should be trained, whether they have hands-on work with children and young people – it doesn’t really matter – because their role involves the care of children and they have a responsibility within the organisation.
So yes, there are some natural strengths and there are natural enabling factors that faith groups can bring to the safeguarding of children.
Mike, going back to the work that you did with the Somali community, would you be able to say a little bit more about that?
My perception was that there is a great potential within the community for the building of a narrative around the importance of abuse prevention, but that more work needed to be done. And I think this would be an issue that would be across many communities, not just within the Somali one.
And the question really is, who does that work and how do they do it? The project was able to open up a space for mothers, but also other members in the community, to talk about issues that were really traditionally taboo and that wouldn’t otherwise be discussed between people.
And that was a great thing and it opened up people’s minds to the possibility of abuse, to things that they were already doing that could help prevent it and to strategies that they could use to lower the risk of abuse to their children specifically within the home.
I think going forward, there needs to be an attempt within the community to harness some of the narratives that mothers have that they produced during the work and to share those more widely.
Mike, you mentioned earlier on as well and that communities – the suggestion being that communities that feel that they are in some ways excluded… therefore, it’s all the more tempting to keep things within the community itself and not to be referring it outwards, I guess.
Absolutely and I see that being played at more when there’s a political dynamic to that community and so everything sort of overlaps with each other and the community becomes very protective because a lot of… they do come from war-torn countries, and so, you will have that mistrust, a sort of, you know, we have to work together as a community to survive.
And so you need to understand the history of the community to understand what their response is to something like safeguarding children – to safety – because it’s not just in isolation, it impacts other areas of their lives as well.
Yes of course and I imagine that communities perhaps come from war-torn countries, but also at different times can feel persecuted or marginalised within our society here as well. So we, as a society, don’t do a lot to help sometimes, to help communities feel that they are part of our society. Is that something that you’ve observed as well?
Yeah, I mean you will have incidents and episodes that will make us think that and we haven’t really been very good sometimes at reaching out or you know groups are too hard to reach; that phrase. But no actually they’re there and they do welcome conversations. So, it’s just a matter of making an effort and making resources available to enable that conversation to happen and there’s more in common that we have of course differences.
Yes, thank you. So we’ve talked quite a lot about some of the strengths that faith groups can bring to safeguarding and we’ve talked also about some of the challenges and the current issues facing faith groups in relation to safeguarding.
Is there anything in addition to what we’ve already said, that either of you would want to say in terms of what communities and those working with communities can do to help address some of those challenges?
I think that one of the things that stood out in the work that we did is the role that personal first-hand accounts of abuse can play in convincing members of a community that abuse can actually happen within their midst.
Coming from a sort of social scientific background that I do, researchers are always keen to bring out the statistics to look at the scale of the problem, but these things often don’t really register emotionally with people.
What we found, is that hearing just one first-hand account or having one experience of abuse, can be enough to persuade people that despite the values of the community that abuse can take place.
And going back to the barriers, there are many barriers that faith communities can face, in terms of putting blocks in the way of safeguarding. The issues around for instance in a Christian community, around forgiveness, is another element, you know, quick to forgive, but without trying to address the issues at hand – that can be a barrier.
Certain texts as well, religious texts… can be used to work against the safeguarding of children. So communities need to have that space to look at that, to see well what is it, what is it in our beliefs or practice, our doctrines, that may not be conducive to a safeguarding attitude and a safeguarding culture and help to unpack that a bit.
If we can maybe focus very much on the experience of a child, one of the things that we know, perhaps is that children in general get a huge amount out of being part of a faith community and in many cases, think of their faith community as being their extended family or like a family which is a brilliant thing, but potentially also makes them more vulnerable for people who want to exploit that level of trust.
Shirley, in your view, what would be something that would indicate to a child that their faith community was committed to keeping them safe; how would a child really know that their community would keep them safe, if the chips were down?
It’s so important. It’s one thing saying you’re safe and actually people knowing that you’re safe. And every child needs to feel safe and know that they are safe and I would say the number one thing is to be listened to and to be taken seriously.
You know, sometimes adults can be very dismissive of children and this goes across communities – that old adage that children must be seen and not heard, but no, children need to be listened to and if they know they are part of a community that where adults… they can have a conversation with aunties and uncles and they will listen to them and respond to them in the right way.
Because children will test adults. They will, you know, if something is wrong, they will come out with it a little bit at a time, not just a whole thing in one go, but they will test along the way. So a listening culture is so important to safeguarding, that children are listened to and their rights are respected.
You know, children are fully human beings. They are born human beings so therefore they have all the human rights as an adult and that’s due to be noted within communities. They need to know that and to respect that.
And so when children I think feel loved and children will know whether they feel they are loved or they don’t and when they feel that love and care and that respect and are able to talk to adults that helps. That really helps them to know that they are in a safe environment.
Mike Williams and Shirley Maginley, thank you very much for all your thoughts today.
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