Young people call for change: understanding sibling relationships and how they’re reflected in family law

The Nuffield Foundation in collaboration with Birkbeck University, published a report in November which makes recommendations for change in the family justice system to ensure that sibling relationships are maintained. Cafcass and the Family Justice Young People’s Board contributed to the report and the young people’s contributions have highlighted the need for change.

Assessing sibling relationships and futures with each other is a core task in contemporary social work with children and families. The starting point must be to ‘allow children to say who their brothers and sisters are’ (Argent, 2008). In other words, ‘who matters to the child?’. This reflects complex family structures in which half-siblings and foster-siblings can be as important for the individual child as their parents. And it is not just brothers and sisters. For an individual child, grandparents and other relatives may be crucial to their emotional and psychological well-being.

A sibling contact plan is just as important in court assessments as a parental capacity analysis and a placement support plan. Assessors and courts have to be careful not to talk casually about ‘sibling rivalry’, ‘the sibling bond’ or the ‘parentification’ of a brother or sister in relation to other siblings. It is best to observe and then describe feelings and behaviours than to use labels.

Brothers and sisters in family proceedings can experience profound separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is traditionally understood as a strong feeling a child has when a parent leaves them. But adults can feel intense separation anxiety too. Parents can feel exactly the same separation anxiety when they cannot see their children, or when they have to leave them for one reason or another. Grandparents can feel this about their children and their grandchildren. ‘I miss you’ is a simple statement for complex and powerful emotions. This means that when we assess our family, we have to understand and analyse a range of relationships and inter-relationships and to be clear how these will be affected by one proposal for change or another.

In both public and private law cases, a key risk is the unjustifiable separation of siblings who wish to stay close to one another. In public law, this is when siblings are split either because the placing authority has been unable to find a placement for both or all siblings, or if the assessment concludes the sibling relationships are causing damage and blocking recovery from trauma for one or more of the children concerned. In private law, unjustifiable separation stems from a toxic parental separation in which the dispute between the parents also pitches siblings against one another or else one or both parents might prevent siblings from seeing each other. An important element of a private law assessment is to analyse the impact of the changing situation on siblings pre-existing relationships with each other. Too much attention in these cases can be given to the parents and their issues and not enough to the children’s. Children must not be punished for not being as articulate or loud in their wishes and feelings as their parents are. Attention in assessments must be given to the analysis of the justifiable or unjustifiable separation of siblings. There are no general rules about this, just the impact on an individual child, what it means and what needs to be done.

As we begin to review public and private law practice, five years into the Public Law Outline (PLO)  and the Child Arrangement Programme (CAP), this gives us a chance to put a far greater emphasis on understanding what is happening to the brothers, sisters and other relatives in a case. We must be clear about how those relationships which work and contribute to a child’s well-being can be continued and supported rather than either being deliberately stopped, being allowed to wither on the vine or not being noticed at all.




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