The emotional toll of sibling separation in care

Throughout the UK, thousands of children in care are living separated from their siblings and are often barred from seeing their brothers and sisters, leading to lifelong breaks in family relationships. Now, an Early Day Motion calls on MPs to change this situation.  

In BBC Three’s Split Up In Care: Life Without Siblings, Ashley John-Baptiste investigates the fate of siblings separated in care Courtesy: BBC

Rowan Foster was always close to her sister; their relationship, she remembers, was characterised by all the usual messiness of sibling bonds – love, admiration, and perhaps a little jealousy. 

Despite living apart from one another after Rowan was placed into foster care aged 10, the relationship was the one of the things she could rely on for emotional support.  

‘She was the only one who understood our family dynamics’ she says.

But maintaining the connection was a struggle – something she had to fight for even as a child. 

The professionals in her life ‘thought it was too much hassle basically…they said they would pay for two trains a year for me to see her. I had to go off on trains by myself at 14, even though as an autistic person, I am not great with travelling by myself’.

Sadly, her sister has since passed away. She wishes that the local authority would have intervened more whilst the pair still had the opportunity to spend time together.

‘A lot of the work that I have done around healing the sibling bond has had to be done in her absence, because she died before we got the chance to do that’.

Rowan’s current role as an NHS expert by experience gives her a unique insight. Living with the duality of lived and professional experience means she is well-placed to reflect on what could have prevented this lack of closure.  

‘There should be tangible expectations on social workers so that sibling contact is maintained. It wasn’t protected or enabled in any sense. If my social worker would have taken me up to see my sister for a couple of hours so we could talk without things being hampered by family dynamics, we could have had those crucial conversations’.

Now, Rowan’s focus is on improving outcomes for children in care. The importance of sibling relationships, she says, cannot be understated. ‘No one else can relate to you like they can’ she says.

‘Siblings are that blend between family and friends’. 

Rowan’s story is not unique. Sibling separation is widespread in care, despite the legal duty for Local Authorities to accommodate siblings together– something which The Children and Young Persons Act 2008 states should be done so far as is reasonably practicable, and subject to welfare conditions. 

Yet in practice, the legislation has little weight. Over 12,000 children are not living with at least one of their siblings in the UK.

There are numerous factors which impact whether or not a child will be placed with their brothers or sisters. According to Stand up for Siblings, they include the timing of entry relative to one another, age, sibling group size and placement time. 

Those more likely to be placed together include:

  • Those who entered care at the same time
  • Smaller sibling groups
  • Children in kinship care (i.e., with someone who knows them) 
  • Younger, closer in age or same-gender siblings. 

Conversely, complicating factors such as behavioural difficulties, resources and family members withholding information about other children in the family, present barriers. So too does the chronic shortage of available foster placements. 

The latter has long been a cause for concern. According to OFSTED, the number of children in foster care has increased by 11% since 2014, yet the number of foster carers has failed to match this, with just a 4% increase. 

The reasons for such stagnant growth in foster carers are complex. The pandemic has resulted in 1 in 5 foster carers considering quitting altogether. And yet, whilst record numbers looked to exit, record numbers also considered becoming foster carers. The catch is this – the vast majority initial enquiries are going nowhere. Out of 160,000 enquiries in 2020, just 10,000 translated into applications.

As children move away from foster care and into adoption, poor levels of contact are often exacerbated.

According to Research in Practice, the majority of adopted children with siblings lose touch with at least some of them

Aisha*, aged 23, is a care-leaver whose 7-year-old sister is due to be adopted. 

‘Adoption can often fall through, but siblings are forever. I don’t think that is recognised’ she says. 

‘I am hoping we will be able to still have some contact, but I have been told it will be completely in their hands. She has only lived with them for 18 months. It is such a short amount of time for them to be given all the power. It doesn’t seem right.’

The heart of the issue, explains Aisha, is the fundamental lack of sibling rights. 

‘If I was her mum, I would have certain rights, even in a contact centre. It seems crazy to me that a parent, even if they have been abusive, contact is still facilitated. Whereas a sibling, who has had no part in things when they have gone wrong, isn’t given any sort of rights at all. It is just treated as a relationship that doesn’t matter’.

Whilst the future is a cause for concern, the past is equally so. During the transition between various foster placements, Aisha has already missed out on so much time with her sibling. 

‘There has already been irreplaceable damage. It will never be the same now, even if I saw her every week between now and 18. We will never get that time back’

Policies underpinning practice, Aisha argues, are in urgent need of reform. 

‘The fact that a child at 8 years old can have their name changed and their past wiped is so outdated and absolutely barbaric. It needs to change’. 

Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields, is one leader who is trying to make such change. The MP has utilised her experience as a former social worker to inform her current work around preventing sibling separation. 

Reflecting on her experiences placing children into care, she says ‘Once calm and away from their home, you are left with children alone in your car, having to explain to them by some roadside that not only are they going to be living somewhere else for an open-ended period, but they are also going to be separated from their siblings’

‘With each one of the children you drop off at their respective placements, you see a muted relief that they are safe, but a deep sadness that they are alone’. 

Little has changed since her time in the profession. In fact, she says that thousands of children are ‘denied relationships with their siblings, despite all the evidence showing that this relationship and bond is one of the most significant and enduring’. 

The MP recently published an Early Day Motion on the issue, which received cross-party support. It raises concerns around the fact that 70% of looked-after children with a sibling in care are separated from that sibling. In response to this staggering figure, the motion urges the government to improve sibling contact for children in care, to prevent such relationships being ‘needlessly ripped apart’. 

Linda Briheim-Crookall, Head of Policy and Practice Development at Coram Voice, echoes this view, and says changes must also take place at a grassroots level to be effective.

‘Greater priority needs to be given to identify the key relationships to children in care’ she says, which could include not only biologically related siblings, but also foster placements or other children they have shared placements with. 

“Workers also need to keep children in care informed about their birth family, why they can or cannot see them and what arrangements have been made for them to spend time together’ she adds. 

Indeed, it is not uncommon for children to be kept out of the loop about who they are and where they come from. This was highlighted in Split up in Care: Life Without Siblings, a documentary produced by care-experienced Ashley Baptise which aired last month, who shared that no one ever told him he had a sibling. And he may never have known, if it wasn’t for his half-brother contacting him in adulthood. 

Acknowledging the fluidity of relationships and how quickly families can change, Linda adds ‘Arrangements need to be reviewed regularly to ensure they reflect the current circumstances, wishes and needs of children and young people and their siblings’.

Finally, it is the little things that make the biggest difference, she adds. To truly thrive, siblings must be encouraged to do all that children who are not in care do, such as ‘playing, having fun and spending meaningful time together’. 

*Names and identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity.

Watch Split Up In Care: Life Without Siblings now on the BBC iPlayer.

Rebekah Pierre is a freelance journalist and author. A former social worker with lived experience of the care system, she is committed to exposing how social policy fails to meet the needs of those it is designed to serve.

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