Bea Campbell: Missing, presumed black

Last month the Metropolitan Police was the source of a story about 300 missing black boys. When they traced the boy "Adam", whose torso had been found in the Thames, to an African region mired in war and misery, they discovered that another 300 boys in Britain, in the same age range and also African, could not be found.

This month a Metropolitan Police report was leaked after the conviction of three adults, motivated by the alchemy of evangelical Christianity and African superstition to torture an orphaned Angolan girl. The report warned that innumerable children might be ritually killed or tormented.

Where were all these missing children? Were they dismembered, or suffering a fate worse than death? No one knew. The Met was mute. "We don't know what missing means," comments Ratna Dutt, director of the Race Equality Unit at the National Institute of Social Work.

After the case of Victoria Climbié, the child murdered by relatives taking care of her on behalf of her parents in Africa, the NSPCC and the Met organised Operation Paladin at Heathrow airport to monitor the thousands of children coming in and out of Britain.

In three months in 2003, they monitored over 1,700 children: most were well looked after. Some were seeking asylum, some girls were at risk of sexual exploitation and taken into care - several swiftly disappeared. About a dozen disappeared without trace. Not 300. But how bad is bad enough? Yet their fate was already occluded by the bigger story.

After a decade of recoiling from the evidence of religious and ritual abuse, why does a Met report on weird and oppressive religious practices get airtime? Is it because it is about Africa?

The Met has now disowned the report. But that doesn't mean something serious isn't going on. The brave new Archbishop of York, the Right Rev John Sentamu, gives thanks to the old missionaries. There is a new Christian evangelism in Africa that undoubtedly provides the dispossessed with a place of belonging and meaning. It also houses megalomania and serious abuse.

The tradition of informal care across community networks has flourished in Africa. It can be noble or sometimes it can be malign. The informal care of children by people other than their parents has a long tradition in Britain, too, enshrined in the private fostering provisions in our children's legislation.

In these new times, however, private fostering has been allowed to exile black children from the entitlement to safety and respect, rights and resources that extends to white children. Mass migrations and war have thrown thousands of children into Britain. Many children in private foster care have lost parents and papers, some don't know who, or where they are.

The Government decided not to regulate private foster care when it debated the new Children Act, maybe because of a fear of nanny-state slurs. Muddle about black "culture" and "tradition" obscured children's rights. Civil liberties worries about intrusion in black family life, and an increase in numbers of people of uncertain immigration status, produced a reluctance to support proper scrutiny of migrant children and their carers. People feel at risk from, rather than protected by, the state.

But Ratna Dutt cautions that black children should not be exempted from protection: "White professionals should not be allowed to absolve themselves from responsibility by hiding behind cultural sensitivity." When things go wrong, she says, "it allows people to argue that good practice is compromised by anti-racism."

Private fostering is cheap and easy for downgraded and downsized social services. It can also veil deadly danger to children. A senior black social worker reckons there is no alternative: only removing immigration controls would resolve immigration status. And, like the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, she believes private carers must be registered, resourced and supervised. "I'm working with people who are all afraid of something. Families are paying off somebody who got them into Britain." Somewhere in those homes are children who are "silent ... they can't tell you their story, they are sedated by fear, I feel extremely angry about that."

So, the story is sinister but subtle, and should alert our attention back from Africa to Britain.