The significance attached to sibling relationships in care and adoption proceedings can be routinely outweighed by other factors, according to a new report funded by the Nuffield Foundation.
This puts siblings at risk of losing touch, despite strong professional recognition of the importance of sibling relationships - that they are 'the most enduring' or 'longest-lasting' relationships in most people's lives.
Concern about children being separated from their brothers and sisters, and having little or no contact with them when they are separated, is not new. However, there is currently no available government data about the extent of sibling separation. Disquiet about the breaking of sibling bonds has been expressed by parliamentarians, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, members of the judiciary and young people themselves.
Practitioners in the Family Court reported that while contact between siblings is accepted in theory, in practice it is not straightforward. Some reasons for sibling relationships being 'severed' or 'drifting apart' are:
The year-long research project, conducted by researchers at the School of Law at Birkbeck, University of London, is the first legal study to focus on sibling relationships in England and Wales. It explores what types of siblings are recognised in law (full, half, step, foster) and, through interviews with judges, lawyers, social workers and other professionals across the country, what emphasis is placed on the relationship in care and adoption decision making.
Birkbeck's Professor Daniel Monk, who led the research, said: "All the professionals we spoke to thought bonds between brothers and sisters were very important, but also recognised challenges in being able to effectively protect or sustain these relationships for children who enter the care system. The Judges we spoke to described decisions which impact on siblings as 'the hardest', 'the most difficult', and 'heartbreaking'. There are no easy answers and there will always be a limit to what law can do, but it is important that law and practice understand WHY siblings sometimes slip from view and are able to address this wherever possible."
A 16 year old surveyed as part of the research said: "When you think about it, the courts always try to keep the routine or not disturb the child's life and all that, try to keep it as normal as possible, but they're separating the siblings from each other. How's that keeping it normal as possible, when in reality, in the most perfect home, you get to see your siblings?"