Yusra’s story: The message was: if you don’t stop having a political opinion, we will take your kids

2018-09-26T16:17:02+00:00 September 21st, 2018|Articles, Harassment/Entrapment, PREVENT, Separating Families, Survivors|

This Human Voice story forms part of CAGE’S project Separating Families: How PREVENT seeks the removal of children

See the rest of the report here.

Names have been changes to protect identities.


 

I am a single mum with five children. I follow a Salafi kind of Islam. Everyone is free to follow their own path in Islam and we celebrate our diversity as Muslims. I have also been and continue to be politically vocal and active.

 

When the children’s services came into our family life, they decided not to inform me until after an urgent multi-agency meeting to plan their course of action.

 

They decided to follow this up with an unannounced school visit. They employed a Section 47 assessment, which means it is urgent and that danger is imminent to the children. This is usually employed in severe cases of abuse when the children are in serious, serious risk of harm.

 

Anyway, they went to the schools with uniformed and plain-clothes officers. It was the first time that the school had a visit like this. I wasn’t informed at all, and by the time I found out, two of my children had already been questioned without me.

 

I was really annoyed with the teachers for allowing this, so I barged into the head teacher’s office. As I approached, my son was sitting in a chair. The social worker and the head teacher were both men, plus there were two male officers there.

 

Here were these men, standing around my son. My little son was six years old, and he was terrified. He just ran to me and sat down on my lap.

 

I adamantly refused that my child be questioned. I was being very rude as I was very angry.

They wanted to see the children at home. I thought the best approach was to co-operate with them so as not to escalate the situation.

 

They were clearly using the ERG22+ and I knew it, so I refused to comply

 

The following day they came to my home, social services with police officers. I said I would let the social workers in but not the police. Eventually after a lengthy debate, I allowed them to come in too – but I wouldn’t do so now.

 

I had just moved and the place wasn’t decorated or furnished properly, and there were boxes everywhere. That triggered off the social worker asking me about lots of boxes on the property.

 

I explained that I had only moved six months ago. I noticed them looking at each other and raising their eyebrows about what I was saying. Later on, I showed them my tenancy papers to confirm what I had been saying.  Being on a single income, there’s no way that I could furnish a huge house. These things take time. But they were really nit-picking.

 

When CAGE published the ERG22+ report I knew how absurd the whole thing was in terms of what they look for in terms of “radicalisation”, and I knew the boxes would be a big deal; it would create the impression that I was about to leave the UK since I was a flight risk.

 

The following day I had a one-to-one meeting with the social worker, his supervisor and myself. I was invited to speak about my views. They were asking me a number of different questions about my views and it was clearly straight from the ERG22+.

 

They asked me what I thought of ISIS and what I thought about democracy, whether it was a viable system to live under. It was all about my belief. I felt like it was my religion and belief that was on trial. It was not about whether I was caring for the children properly. The whole thing was led by the police. I saw on the form, the referral was made by counter-terrorism police, SO15.

 

During the interview, he was asking me questions about the Paris attack, and other incidences around the world at that time. It was November 2015 and there had been several attacks. He was quick firing me about what my thoughts were.

 

I said to him: what has a terror attack in Paris got to do with a single mother in London? I said: your questions are irrelevant, as they have nothing to do with how I care for the children.

In the end, I decided to not answer his questions. After seeking legal advice, I chose to leave the meeting.

 

As I was exiting, the social worker said they would escalate the matter to a child protection conference. I said, do what you have to do and I will do what I have to do.

 

I made it my mission to protect my kids and tell people the truth about PREVENT

 

I was given a letter that the outcome of the Section 47 was that the risk of harm still existed and therefore they had initiated a multi-agency programme, which involved them compelling every single professional in my children’s lives to comply with them.

 

We had a round table meeting, all of us. It was very awkward. My housing officer was there and he kept apologising as the discussions were intimate and private. The teachers were apologising for having to be present.

 

My family doctor refused to come as he felt the whole procedure was very unfair and embarrassing for the family. He sent a stern letter that he would not attend this or any further meetings regarding me or my children as he had absolutely no concern about us.

 

However, PREVENT required them to engage. As unfair and arbitrary as they thought it was, they had no choice; they had to be there – and they were not allowed to dissent. One opted not to respond to certain questions and they did not allow her. They forced her to answer.

 

I keep my relationships with these people professional and the discussion was very embarrassing for some of them to be a part of, and very awkward for me to have them all there. It was like they were standing there, throwing mud at me, as much as they could, to see how much of it would stick.

 

After this, they decided that the children would remain in a child protection plan. That upset me, as this had consequences for the children. There is a huge stigma, and my children are flagged up when they go to a hospital, even for something minor, like an asthma attack.

 

It’s on the system. People are inquisitive. In the beginning it was awful, and then I made up my mind to clarify things. I would have a dialogue with the professionals when they asked about my children. I felt I had to justify myself and educate people why my children were on a child protection plan.

 

When my son cut his head, the doctor stitched him, I then had to spend about 45 minutes talking about the Prevent duty.

 

I felt that unless I spent 45 minutes to an hour talking to these people and telling them the truth about the situation, it would just get worse. I did this with my housing officer, my neighbours. It became ridiculous.

 

I had to keep telling people, keep defending myself as there was nobody telling my side of the story, and nobody to stand up for me.

 

There was no respite. I had to keep defending myself. If I said I am not feeling well, or I was too busy for you to see my children, or please don’t come today, I am too tired, or they were very busy with homework – which was sometimes the case – that would go down as me not allowing access. I just couldn’t do that.

 

I was hospitalised, but finally in court there was relief

 

Then I had a heart attack. There I was lying in hospital, and social services again came knocking on the door, turning up at the kids’ school, trying to find out who was picking up my children. And here I was having to liaise with the solicitor, getting emails sent over to the local authorities.

 

All the time there was this underlying threat that I am going to lose my children. This is just one example of how ruthless they were. But really, it was three years of continuous hell.

 

The children have been closely monitored and watched for three years. The local authorities tried to get me to work with PREVENT and CHANNEL. I remained cooperative with the child protection plan, but I remained adamant that I would not work with PREVENT and CHANNEL.

That’s when they escalated it to court proceedings.

 

When it came to the “radicalisation” assessment, they said, you pick who will do the risk assessment, but I said: this is ridiculous; I would not even pick my dad, as it’s all based on the ERG22+ so it’s completely untrustworthy and the outcome is predetermined.

 

Once in court they tried to bully me through a court order to work with PREVENT and I refused.

 

But when I went to court, it was really a mercy from Allah. In court, it is not only me who was on trial, but the local authority was also being scrutinised by the judge.

 

Alhumdullillah, I had a very good, reasonable understanding judge. I know that in many cases when parents lose their children, it’s not because they had some fault with the parents, but it is due to a biased judgement.

 

I was fortunate. The judge said my children were in no danger. The social worker had said this before, that there were no dangers, that they were smart kids, achieved well, but I think there was manipulation from above.

 

They went on and on, and in the end the evidence was collated and there were just bundles and bundles of court papers against me. I looked at it, and I just thought: wow, look at all these files.

 

Alhumdullillah, after all this, the judge was unconvinced at the evidence the police had to show that I was an “extremist”. The ruling was that I was evidently a good mother, as my children were provided for and cared for and had the “necessary emotional support” and “good living conditions”. The judge identified that I was a “religious” person but not an “extremist”.

 

The judge also showed a lot of sympathy to my heart condition that I had developed in the process and wanted to quickly resolve the case. She was concerned about the length of time that this had gone on for, and she reprimanded the local authorities for prolonging a case that should have been resolved quickly and outside of court. She also lamented the amount of public funding that had been spent.

 

I lost three years of peace with my children

 

The effect of this on my children, I can’t really describe it and to be honest I still don’t know the damage that it has caused, since it has only just finished. But I can already see some cracks in my children’s behaviour.

 

I was always trying to encourage them to talk to the social worker, to their court appointed guardian, to all these strange people that suddenly appeared in our lives. There is one thing being open and honest and transparent, and then there is just a complete invasion of my privacy. They picked on everything they could.

 

My children absorbed the whole experience. They used to play games and threaten each other with social service action, and one was the social worker, the other the police and the other was me, so it manifested in their role-playing games.

 

It had a devastating effect on the way in which the kids were treated at school. There was extra monitoring of them by the teachers. On top of that scrutiny, when they were taken out of lessons, the other kids would ask them why. They always had to justify themselves. As a mum I felt completely powerless to protect them.

 

But I always try to safeguard their Islamic identity and I remain very unapologetic about that. For my kids, it didn’t really impact them on their Islamic side, because – a lot of people withdraw their kids from Quran classes, or Westernise their dress for the court – but I didn’t do that.

 

I didn’t want to change the way I am or the way my kids were. I want them to see us for what we are. It is a means of educating them, and I wasn’t going to pretend, just so they don’t see me as “radical”.

 

The kids had long discussions with their guardian about the Manchester attacks, and I told him: I don’t really talk about this with my children. I felt it confused my kids. They know what the answers are to all this, but they felt they had to stop and think about what they had to say.

 

I always teach them: think before you speak, because you can offend people. But this was so stressful. They had to keep justifying and checking their beliefs, and I felt really sorry for them, sitting on the sofa, thinking, is there a right answer? What should I say to help?

There is an enormous amount of stress on the child in these circumstances.

 

I kept imagining my son talking about some kind of attack, you know, they must have done something to deserve it, not because he meant it, but because this is just what kids say. They make judgements on worldly events based on what’s happening in their little worlds. For example, when my son hits his sister and I scold him, he says: she deserved it. They just say these things sometimes, but it does not mean that the child is “radicalised”.

 

Alhumdullillah, our guardian understood that. But PREVENT, doesn’t.

 

You have to be consistent, resilient and hopeful

 

My advice to others going through this, is not to be scared by terminology from local authorities, even when they threaten in headline letters to take your children away. You need to get yourself a good legal team, have resilience and courage.

 

When they asked me about whether I support ISIS, I just said: I am not going to answer that question. I didn’t create ISIS. What do they think: I have ISIS on speed dial?

 

I said to the judge: if my kids accidentally bump someone on a train, I would encourage them to apologise for their own behaviour. I wouldn’t apologise for them. I am not their advocate. I remained steadfast, but I was not going to condemn something that is totally unrelated to me.

 

Alhumdullillah, I continued that approach and it worked, and the last day in court, when I said to my barristers, thank you – because this case was a big one and we had to get through a lot. They said no, we should thank you: you taught us a lot, how to be assertive, how to fight your own battles. My legal team, I had to tell them: this is the way I want to do it.

 

My legal team kept saying, what-if… You have to make a contingency plan, it might not work out for you. I said: let’s be optimistic here, just because a judge says it, that’s not the be all and end all. I just remained positive, confident and I put all my hope in Allah.

 

I have strong grievances against the UK policy. I speak up against the Israeli occupation of Palestine – this should not make me a radical and a danger to society and my children.

 

As a citizen I have a right to demonstrate against policies that I disagree with. It’s my right to speak against oppression and hold public assemblies and engage in dialogue. These are actually all constructive things, and positive ways of dealing with our current global situation.

 

They just wanted me to shut up. The message was: if you don’t shut up, we will take your kids.

 

But they really have nothing to go on. There’s really absolutely nothing to prove the “signs of radicalisation”. “Signs of radicalisation” simply don’t exist. There’s no characteristic that you can spot to determine who is dangerous and who isn’t.

 

But for them, number one is that you are Muslim, that you pray five times a day, and you have political opinions. If my children were to grow up, pierce their bodies, put tattoos all over themselves and worship Satan, that won’t cause an intervention – but if my daughter wears hijab, and my son grows a beard and wears a thobe, that is a cause for concern.

 

My children, because they are my children, they are already a potential threat to the state. They are somehow future “terrorists”. It’s really sad that they have to grow up with this assumption.

 

Yes, I won the case, and the social services and police left with their tails between their legs, but they can’t bring back three years, the isolation and rejection from some friends and family, the damage, and obviously the shadow of all this on our lives.

 

Your hope and faith keep you going. How else can you carry on? You can’t continue.

 

Until we see the bigger picture of where this can go, we won’t get far. I hope my case will help others, that it sets a precedent that will benefit others. Even if you’re put under the knife, with Allah’s help, you can still slip out.

See the rest of  CAGE’s Separating Families: How PREVENT seeks the removal of children report here.

(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)