Sibling contact in care should be a right not a lottery
If siblings can’t be placed together, they should have the same rights to have contact with each other as they do with their mothers and fathers, writes Emma Lewell Buck MP.
I can say from experience there are few more traumatic experiences for a social worker than having to split up families. Nobody wants to do it. It is the response of last resort. The law protects the rights of children to have contact with their parents, but it makes no such demands to ensure brothers and sisters get to see each other too. The system is overwhelmed. In such circumstances naturally the letter of the law is followed first and everything else comes a distant second.
A recent report by the Centre for Social Justice suggests more than 70% of looked-after children with a sibling in care are separated from a brother or sister. For those being cared for in children’s homes that number is a staggering 95%.
Too many times I remember sitting by the side of the road in a car with a child who has minutes earlier been removed their family home, telling them that wherever they are going to stay that night it won’t be with their siblings. For many children this feels like the end of all their family relationships. The sense of loss, of bereavement and of sudden isolation is palpable.
Lawyers for parents quickly get to work ensuring their contact but without legal insistence those other close family ties are deemed less of a priority. This is where the law needs to change. If siblings can’t be placed together, they should have the same rights to have contact with each other as they do with their mothers and fathers.
Separating brothers and sisters can have a devastating effect. In families where there is harm or abuse, brothers and sisters are often the ones who comfort each other, encourage each other, protect each other. The bonds forged in sometimes brutal situations are often even stronger than those made in more stable environments. However terrible the experiences they have shared, it is precisely because they have such nightmares in common that they depend on one another so deeply. Being placed apart can cause extreme anxiety as the children worry about not only their own situation but that of those closest to them. It is important to remember that these young people are the victims, the blameless ones. They have endured a chaotic family life only to have more trauma inflicted upon them by the failure to keep them in touch with each other.
So why is this happening? Not only is there no legal enforcement, but also a chronic lack of foster placements available for family groups of children. The average number of sibling foster carers is one per local authority and some have none at all. Again, because there is no legal requirement there aren’t even figures available for how many siblings those few places can take. It’s a vicious circle; with no compulsion to keep children together, there’s less pressure to find places for them, which again, makes it harder to prioritise the issue. Anyone who has tried to help children in these terrible circumstances knows how important it is to them. A recent Ofsted study found that 86% of all children in care said it was important to keep siblings together, while more than three quarters thought councils should help brothers and sisters stay in touch with each other.
Nobody is blaming the professionals, in under-resourced environments they do what they have to do first and then try to do what should be done if they can. There is existing guidance that brothers and sisters should be kept together where possible but it doesn’t have the force of primary legislation.
Children whose families have been split up for their protection have already suffered a most terrible loss. It cannot be right that we continue to punish them for a tragedy not of their making by keeping them apart from the most important people in their lives, the ones they love and trust the most.
Emma Lewell Buck is Labour MP for South Shields.