“We are family”: considering the importance of sibling relationships in family proceedings
Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive
When asked how many brothers and sisters he has, a donor conceived man I know, a wag as well, answered, “Dunno, about 700 I think.” He, like me, campaigns for the rights of donor conceived children to have their status recognised on their birth certificate. As an adopted person, I call my birth mother’s children my half siblings even though legally they are not. With more families re-constituting and blending, brothers and sisters might not live with each other but may still feel part of the same family or families. They may be in touch – or fall out, or fall out and fall back in – for a lifetime. I say all this to emphasise the significance of brothers and sisters to the children we work with. We should assess the degree of significance and the contribution brothers and sisters are making or can make in the future towards the well-being of the child under our spotlight.
In public law care or adoption cases, this will often mean assessing whether siblings should stay together or apart, through reviewing the local authority stance on that. Sometimes that decision is led by placement availability. Sometimes it is led by a view that the sibling relationship has become harmful and dysfunctional as a result of family dysfunction, and that for the child in question to recover and grow, she or he should be cared for apart from their siblings. We should remember that positive sibling contact can promote positive outcomes in care such as mental health, socialisation, academic performance and placement stability (Sen and Broadhurst¹, Wojciak²).These are arguments for inclusive permanence placements, unless for exceptional reasons inclusion is dangerous.
In private law, while the court application is invariably by one parent against the other, or one family adult against another, sibling relationships may be as important to the child as her or his relationship is with their parents. Siblings are not an afterthought. Rather, they need to be integral to the Family Court Adviser’s case analysis and recommendations, if only to be discounted or to be included in the balancing exercise for a welfare determination.
Our brothers and sisters are part of us. They are with us for life without a guarantee, so each of us has to find the right level with each of our brothers and sisters, and they with us. In our public and private law work, we should facilitate the children we work with to be in the best position possible to do this for themselves.
I will end with this advice from the Family Justice Young People’s Board, which I endorse:
- The most important thing is to listen to each child individually. They may be related, but that doesn’t mean they share the same opinions, so don’t consider them as a package.
- Make your decision based on what you think would be best for each child.
- Professionals need to see sibling relationships as being just as important as parent or grandparent relationships, whether it be full sibling or half sibling.
- Remember that as we are individuals, we may want to express our views in different ways. Give us the option to speak to you separately or together, or maybe even both.
- It is important to keep siblings together or to maintain a good level of contact during family breakdown.
¹ SEN, Robin & BROADHURST, Karen. (2011). Contact between children in out-of-home placements and their family and friends networks: a research review. Child and Family Social Work 16(3) pp. 298-309
²WOJCIAK, Armeda Stevenson et al. (2013).Sibling relationships and internalizing symptoms of youth in foster care. Children and Youth Services Review 35(7), pp. 1071-1077