Sibling contact for looked after children

Part of Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee am 11:45 am ar 12 Ionawr 2017.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 11:45, 12 Ionawr 2017

This new clause relates to improving sibling contact for children in care. The Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to allow a looked-after child reasonable contact with their parents, but there is no similar provision for a looked-after child’s contact with their siblings or half-siblings. Work by the Family Rights Group shows that half of all sibling groups in local authority care are split up and that those in residential care are even less likely to be living with their brothers or sisters.

The Children and Young Person’s Act 2008 includes a duty on local authorities to place siblings together as far as reasonably practicable as that is generally the best option for them. I accept that in some cases, such as when there has been inter-sibling abuse, separation may be deemed necessary. However, the main barrier to siblings being placed together is a dire shortage of foster placements able or equipped to take sibling groups. Research has shown that the average number of sibling foster carers is one per local authority, and some have none at all. Even when there are sibling carers, there are no figures for how many siblings they can take. It could be a group of two, three, four or five.

That is the backdrop against which sibling contract is so important. If siblings cannot be placed together, they should have the same rights defined in legislation to have contact with one another as they do with their parents.

Many siblings who come from neglectful or abusive backgrounds often state that their only constant, positive and reassuring relationship is with their siblings. After all, they have a shared experience—and no matter how horrific it is, it is something only they truly know about. For a younger sibling, the older one is the only person who kept them safe. It is never appropriate for an older sibling to take on that role, but it is a fact that they often do.

Separating siblings in such circumstances can have consequences on placement stability and create anxiety for both the younger and older one. The younger may be worried about their new environment with strangers in an unfamiliar environment without their older protector, and the older may be in a similar situation, as well as not knowing how their younger sibling is coping or who is looking after them. If siblings have known only adults who cause them harm, the initial days in placement until they feel safe with their new carers are the most precarious.

Efforts to increase the number of carers who will take sibling groups have not matched the scale of demand. As the number of children in care rises, it is unlikely that the number of carers will catch up any time soon. In this context, it is right that sibling contact is given the same prominence as parental contact. It cannot be right that our legislation gives more weight to a child’s contact with those who may have or have caused them significant harm than with their siblings who are totally blameless.

Removing a child from a family home is one of the most traumatic and heartbreaking experiences for any children’s social worker. It means that the relationship dynamics of working with a family to improve children’s lives and to make sure they are protected from harm have reached crisis level. This may be an emotional overload for professionals, let alone the family, and often involves the police, violence, tears and aggression. The list goes on.

I recall from my own practice many occasions when I was left with a child alone in a car after the initial trauma of removing them, and having to explain to them at some roadside that not only were they going to be living somewhere else for a period that no one was sure about, but that they were going to be separated from their siblings. That is the most painful of all. No matter how the situation is explained, children often feel that that is the end—of not only their family, but their relationships with their siblings. As each child in a sibling group is dropped off at their respective placement, there is muted relief that they are safe, but deep sadness that they are completely alone.

The wheels of social services then spring into action. Solicitors for parents demand in court to have contact, as enshrined in legislation for parents, and that is arranged with urgency. In a resource-poor environment, what has to be done is often what is done first. Other issues, such as guidance that recognises the importance of maintaining contact with siblings, take a back seat and are deemed a lesser priority.

Many siblings see each other at contact with their parents, which can be three or four times a week for one hour, but they rarely have sibling-only contact. When they do, it will be monthly or considerably less often. Worse still, if that sibling is a newborn or not a full sibling, contact with their parents is separate and plans for their future are made separately. That breaks that early attachment between newborns and their elder siblings before it has fully developed, leaving an unimaginable feeling of loss for the siblings. However, the parents’ contact with the newborn is upheld, even if all of the children could be reunited at home with their parents, or if they are placed for permanence together, which again brings more difficulties when settling into a new permanent home.

The sibling relationships of children from abusive homes are the most enduring. A recent Ofsted study found that 86% of all children in care thought it was important to keep siblings together in care, while more than three quarters thought councils should help to keep children in touch with their siblings. A recent Centre for Social Justice report stated:

“One of our greatest concerns is that the bonds between siblings in care, which can lead to greatly valued lifelong relationships, are being broken.”

We all know that guidance is no substitute for a clear duty. While not everything can be in the Bill, if we really value and understand sibling relationships we should absolutely allow their voices to be heard in the legislation.