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Sibling Separation - The argument for and against

Clare Jerrom takes a look at the proposals in the fostering stocktake around sibling separation and the arguments against such a move.

The legal requirement of placing siblings together in foster care was challenged earlier this year in the national Fostering Stocktake, prompting criticism from the sector.

It may be enshrined in almost 30 year old legislation that siblings should be placed together where possible, but that didn’t stop the review of foster care recommending a shift in practice around placing siblings together in foster care.

The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review Regulations (2010) and Fostering Regulations prescribe the information which must be considered before a fostering placement is made. One of the most important considerations is the ‘placement of siblings together whenever possible and in the best interests of the children concerned’.

However, the fostering stocktake carried out by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers published in February stated: “We do not doubt that for many children, being placed together will contribute to the success of the placement and it is probably the case that - as Ofsted have argued - some siblings are unnecessarily separated. Nevertheless it is dangerous to assume that it is always in the interests of family groups to be fostered together.”

It went on to recommend that as part of the assessment process when siblings enter care, individually or simultaneously, local authorities should not presume that keeping groups together is in the interests of all children in that group. Instead they should consider the individual needs of each child and whether they are likely to thrive when placed together and whether it is possible for one set of carers to meet the developmental demands of the full sibling group.

Exploiting naivety

The relevant law in England and Wales is the Children Act (1989), which states that: “Where a local authority provides accommodation for a child whom they are looking after, they shall, subject to the provisions of this Part and so far as is reasonably practicable and consistent with his welfare, secure that —

(b) where the authority are also providing accommodation for a sibling of his, they are accommodated together” (section 23, part 7).

Despite this guidance, Family Rights Group research found that while 80% of looked after children have siblings, only 37% of them are placed with them.

However, the stocktake sought to address theoretical arguments both for and against sibling separation.

The Fostering Stocktake highlighted an evidence review commissioned for the Department for Education, in which Mary Baginsky observed that: “A review by Heger (2005) that was conducted in the US but covered Canada, the UK and other European countries found that most studies suggested that ‘joint sibling placements’ are as stable as, or more stable than, placements of single children or separated siblings and that children do as well or better when placed with siblings.”

It referred to researchers Sweeney and Hazell who have argued that positive sibling relationships are protective of mental health. They noted that girls separated from their siblings had significantly poorer mental health than girls living with at least one sibling, but the same was not true of boys. However it raised questions around whether poorer mental health leads to separation or separation leads to poorer mental health, or indeed whether other factors, such as the very nature and experiences leading up to children coming into care are associated with both mental health and separation.

Baginsky had summarised that siblings are less likely to thrive together when the sibling group is large, the children are not close in age, did not enter care at the same time or when there are concerns over sibling on sibling abuse. Despite this applying to ‘a not insignificant number of siblings in care’, there has emerged a largely unchallenged consensus that siblings must not be separated.

The stocktake said the media was partially to blame for criticising sibling separation in care “and generally without qualification”. It also attacked a number of fostering agencies in both the voluntary and private sector which, it said, “have exploited public naivety about sibling separation to aid recruitment drives”.

“Invariably they paint a rosy picture of fostering siblings which - at the very least - critically underestimates the challenge of caring for a sibling group. One independent fostering agency suggests on its website that fostering siblings is always appropriate and possibly easier than fostering individual children,” said the stocktake report.

Highly sexualised behaviour

According to the stocktake, the independent fostering agency had published the following on their website: “You’ll find siblings who are placed into foster homes together often settle quicker, as with the support of their brothers or sisters they tend to adjust to the situation easier than those who are separated. Studies have also shown siblings kept together go on to achieve much better grades at school. This is likely linked to the factor above. A child struggling to adjust to their new situation is going to be a lot less likely to succeed academically. The biggest benefit of keeping siblings together is that it significantly boosts their emotional wellbeing. Our job is to ensure the children who enter our care are happy, healthy and well looked after. When brothers and sisters are placed together, it causes much less trauma and emotional upset, making them happier overall.”

The stocktake report slammed the agency as having “a very poor grasp of the evidence” and “one that is likely to be unduly optimistic about the benefits of keeping sibling groups together,” when the reality is considerably more challenging.

Adoption Agency Family Futures told the stocktake that there is a double challenge of more complex and challenging children coming into care, with significant developmental issues, and alongside their brothers and sisters. Indeed, it added that since The Children Act 1989 was passed, the threshold criteria for children coming into care has been raised, and as a consequence of that, children are taken into care at a later age and often in sibling groups, rather than as individual children.

Extremely demanding

The stocktake refers to research by Lord and Borthwick which challenges the traditional view of the invariable benefit of siblings being placed together. They suggested situations where siblings should be placed separately including where there is evidence of:

  • Intense rivalry and jealousy, with each child totally pre-occupied with, and unable to tolerate the attention their sibling(s) may be getting.
  • Exploitation, often based on gender, e.g. boys may have been seen and see themselves as inherently superior to their sisters, with a right to dominate and exploit them.
  • Chronic scapegoating of one child.
  • Maintaining unhelpful alliances in a sibling group and family of origin.
  • Maintaining unhelpful hierarchical positions e.g. the child may be stuck in the role of victim or bully.
  • Highly sexualised behaviour with each other.

Family Futures warned that even in circumstances where there may be advantage in keeping a sibling group together, local authorities need to be realistic about the capacity of foster carers to compensate for the harm each child has suffered.

“The degree of developmental trauma experienced by children in the looked after system means they often require very intensive developmental re-parenting. Deficits and damage caused by early poor parenting means that, in order to heal and catch up, children require to be parented as much younger children,” they told the stocktake.

“When assessing a sibling relationship, the assessor should take into account the intensity of parenting required if the siblings were to be placed together. This needs to include not only an assessment of the individual needs of each child but also the sibling dynamic. Parenting siblings who have been harmed by early parenting experiences and whose sibling relationships have been pathologised can be extremely demanding. In making family placements it is important that the primary objective of developing a secure attachment between child and parent is not jeopardised by the demands of managing sibling relationships,” they added.

What is necessary is an objective, evidence informed, and exploratory assessment, as soon as a child enters care, of what is best for that individual child, the stocktake concluded on this issue, recommending that as part of the assessment process when siblings enter care, individually or simultaneously, local authorities should not presume that keeping groups together is in the interests of all children in that group. Instead they should consider the individual needs of each child and whether they are likely to thrive when placed together and whether it is possible for one set of carers to meet the developmental demands of the full sibling group.

Incompatible with human rights legislation

However, a coalition of more than 40 organisations and experts including BASW, Association of Professors of Social Work, UNISON and The Care Leavers’ Association as well as experts including Dr Maggie Atkinson, former Children’s Commissioner for England, Dr Liz Davies, Emeritus Reader in Child Protection, London Metropolitan University, and Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, stated: “This is a radical proposal that flies in the face of established childcare practice and law. It implicitly dismisses decades of testimony from children in care and care leavers. It would require a change to the Children Act 1989, which we do not believe would be compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.”

In an individual statement, BASW added: “The section on Sibling Separation infers that placing siblings together is just a matter of social work convention, when it is in fact a legal requirement for local authorities to ensure that a placement enables siblings who are in the care system to be accommodated together as far as it is reasonably practicable.

The professional association added that it “is very disappointing” that the section criticises social work practice unfairly.

Indeed, WillisPalmer’s executive consultant Phil King told Children First that placing siblings together should be the “default position” in social work. He stressed that the sibling relationship is “so important and probably the longest relationship we have in our lives” and even when highly skilled assessors suggest that siblings should not be placed together and “staying together would have an adverse effect on one or all siblings,” then the separation should initially be temporary and reviewed.

Further, the response from The Fostering Network added that the recommendation around sibling separation “goes against established practice and law”.

“The Children’s Act requirement to enable siblings to live together has a caveat – it must be exercised so far as is reasonably practicable in all the circumstances of each individual child’s case. As stated in the letter to the Children’s Minister from the Together for Children campaign the law allows flexibility so the individual child’s best interests prevails. We do not understand why the authors of the stocktake report deny the importance of placing siblings together when this is in their best interests and we would urge the government to defend current law, policy and practice,” the statement concluded.

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