It is shocking that some children in the UK are being taken from their parents on child protection plans or placed in foster care on the false suspicion they have been the victims of female genital mutilation (FGM).
A new report from the BBC in the past week week said some children are being separated from their parents for months whilst investigations and examinations take place, despite experts claiming the majority of concerns turn out to be unfounded.
FGM is a term given to all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitals, or other injury to female genital organs where there is no medical reason.
It has been illegal in the UK since 1985, and is an offence to arrange outside the country for British citizens or permanent residents.
FGM can be carried out for various cultural, religious and social reasons within families and communities, in the mistaken belief that it will benefit the girl in some way. It can however seriously harm the health of women and girls and cause long-term problems with sex, childbirth and mental health.
Most commonly carried out on girls under the age of 15, the majority under the age of five (according to Unicef), there are no definitive figures on the number of cases, but the British government has warned thousands of women and children are at risk, describing it as a ‘hidden crime’.
Quite rightly, it is therefore a legal requirement for all health professionals, social workers and teachers to report cases of suspected FGM in under-18s to the police, and to refer suspected cases to local safeguarding teams.
Certainly, all professionals should not hesitate should they have any suspicion at all, however, it is how cases are then handled from this point onwards which is a matter of growing concern.
Investigations must be quicker to children being wrongly taken from parents
As a specialist in handling cases of human rights breaches, I have many concerns as to how cases of suspected FGM are handled when reported to the relevant authorities – and how the rights of law-abiding parents and their children can be too easily overlooked.
Of course, any case of child protection comes with an extra sense of urgency, but still, police forces and other authorities have a duty not only to protect, but also to prevent injustice.
Toks Okeniyi, head of programmes and operations for Forward, a campaign and support organisation committed to gender equality and safeguarding the rights of African girls and women, says there is too often a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to suspected FGM cases.
This is something we have seen at Hudgell Solicitors in cases we have been involved in, as police forces have been too quick to assume there to have been FGM simply because of the ethnic origin of the child.
Such assumptions can result in children being wrongly taken from their parents while investigations take place, and this is where a second issue, over the speed of investigations and examinations being carried out, is a major concern
Studies by experts at University College London Hospital in 2016 showed it took nearly two months for children to be referred for an examination by local authorities – and that there have been waits of more than a year.
Ms Okeniyi has also revealed how her organisation supported a family where a child was placed in foster care for eight months before being examined, and was found not to have undergone FGM.
This is simply an unacceptable situation, and must be addressed as a matter of urgency as the Government continues to work to ending this offence against many young girls.
Whilst we fully understand the complexities of cases involving child protection, mistakes leading to the wrongful separation of children from parents – for any period of time – can leave innocent people traumatised long-term.