How to help siblings maintain contact

Experts outline five key messages for legal and social work professionals to emerge from latest research on sibling relationships in the care system.

Many people unfamiliar with the care system are surprised to discover that children are frequently separated from their siblings, whether through adoption or other types of placement.

They are even more shocked to discover that siblings separated in this way tend to have quite infrequent contact with one another or may lose touch entirely.

For those working closely with children in care, the separation of brothers and sisters is considered a source of concern, but a regrettable fact of life.

Our research, Siblings, Contact and the Law: An overlooked relationship?, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, explored the status of siblings in legislation in England and Wales and reviewed what case law in care and adoption proceedings can tell us about how decisions about them are made.

We also interviewed practitioners and young people to get their perspectives on the issues siblings may face when they are involved in public law proceedings.

Parliamentarians, the United Nations and social work researchers have drawn attention to the issue of siblings becoming separated and losing contact with one another, as have members of the judiciary. In 2013, Lord Justice Ryder said: "All too often adoption orders are made with all the best intentions for continuing sibling contact, which are then thwarted for no particularly good reason."

It was clear from our interviews that practitioners do often have the "best intentions for continuing sibling contact", but other factors readily outweigh them. This study aimed to shed light on what these factors are and what can be done about them, as outlined here.

1. Equality in status

There is a lack of consistency and coherence in the definitions of siblings in law. Should half and full siblings be given equal status? Can social siblings - step and foster brothers and sisters - be included in considerations of who matters to a child in care? The young people with care experience who advised the project were clear that they resented the "half/full" distinction and felt that strong sibling bonds could be forged between children in step families and in foster care.

The lawyers, judges, social workers, independent reviewing officers and guardians we spoke to also thought that the category "sibling" needs to be an inclusive one, but said that it could be very difficult to pursue this in practice.

We recommend that work is done to clarify the statutory terminology and that the language used by practitioners to describe sibling relationships should reflect how children perceive them.

2. Assessment practice

The way in which the qualities of sibling relationships are assessed during proceedings, which informs recommended outcomes, can be problematic. Practitioners told us that while formal sibling assessments are considered important and have become more common, they are often rushed, and while they should be undertaken to inform decision-making in an open-ended way, are sometimes called for to "rubber-stamp" the decision to separate.

A new guide by CoramBAAF identifies ways in which the rigour of assessments could be improved and we recommend wide dissemination of the publication. This could help open up discussion about an over-reliance on assumptions that may create barriers to sibling contact - for example, seeing older siblings as disruptive to a placement or assuming that babies and older siblings can be separated without serious consequences.

3. Psychological concepts

There is confusion about the role of psychological concepts in decision making about siblings. Many professionals talked about attachment between brothers and sisters, but some were unsure whether this was an appropriate theory for assessing sibling relationships as it was originally concerned with dynamics between a mother and her children. "Parentification" was another psychological term that was unclear. Used to describe a child who is judged to have taken on an inappropriate caring role towards younger brothers or sisters, being "parentified" can lead to arguments for separating siblings or for keeping them together.

4. Contact when separated

We found in the case law and were told in the interviews that plans for contact between separated siblings are more determined by the type of placements the children are in than by the qualities of the relationship between them, or the children's own wishes.

There is a strong assumption that direct contact cannot continue when one sibling is adopted but others remain in care, especially if they are in contact with parents. Even though, where adoption is not a factor, direct contact is presumed, this often does not happen for multiple reasons.

5. Use of legal orders

There is a reluctance to use the legal orders which are available to establish and enforce contact between separated siblings. Section 34 orders of the Children Act 1989 could be used between siblings in care, but these are exceptional. Section 26 orders could be used to ensure contact when a child is being placed for adoption, separately from their siblings. Meanwhile, section 51 orders could be used to bring about contact after an adoption order is made.

The reasons why these are not used are varied. Some practitioners said local authorities, foster carers and adopters need to be trusted to make provisions for contact and these should be set out in the care plan. We were also told that there is a reluctance to deter prospective adopters, who are assumed to be wary of any birth family contact, including with siblings.

The requirement in some contexts for children to have judicial permission to apply for an order for contact with a sibling is thought by some to deter older siblings from pursuing this route. Others says there is a lack of advocacy services for such children, advising them of their rights.

We do not discount these reservations about encouraging children to make orders for contact, but we do think it is worthwhile having a conversation about them. In fact, this is very much our overall recommendation - that it is time for the legal and social work professions to have an open and informed discussion about how their desire to protect and sustain sibling relationships can be realised.

By Professor Daniel Monk and Dr Jan Macvarish, School of Law, Birkbeck, University of London

12,250 children entered care who had a sibling entering care
81% were assessed as needing to be placed together
13% were placed separately after being assessed to stay together
Source: Ofsted 2015

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