‘I’d like a sibling assessment too, please’ are words usually accompanied by a roll of the eyes as the already stretched social work team tots up the extra work involved. On the extensive list of parenting assessments, viability and kinship assessments, expert assessment and so forth, the sibling assessment is often the bottom of the priorities.
This is at odds with research which suggests that the sibling relationship is often the most enduring. In 2015, 49.5% of sibling groups in local authority care were split up, and 47% of children were placed in a placement without any of their siblings.
The law is clear – where there is any consideration of siblings being separated, a sibling assessment should be routinely ordered, and at the earliest opportunity (Re B-T and G-T (Children: Twins – Adoption) 2018 EWFC 76). A sibling assessment should not come in at the conclusion of proceedings, following 6 months of separation.
Sibling assessments should not only address whether siblings are to be placed together or separately, but also look at the possible benefits of a staggered transition plan, with one sibling moving to permanent placement ahead of another, and, where separation is felt to be in the children’s best interests, consider contact.
The United Nations General Assembly Resolution 64/142 noted ‘siblings with existing bonds should in principle not be separated by placements in alternative care unless there is a clear risk of abuse or other justification in the best interests of the child. In any case, every effort should be made to enable siblings to maintain contact with one another, unless this is against their wishes and feelings.’
There are occasions when it is appropriate to place siblings separately – for example where a sibling relationship is harmful or dysfunctional, or where a sibling (usually older) has had to take on a caring role and needs careful parenting alone to allow them to relinquish these responsibilities and be a child themselves. Sibling groups exposed to poor parenting and neglect over time may have developed difficult behaviour, blaming one another for the removal or exhibiting controlling behaviour. Clearly, in these circumstances placement together, or ongoing direct contact would not be in the best interests of the children.
Where one child is subject to a placement order, consideration should be given to continued direct contact (Re P (A Child) 2008 EWCA Civ 535). Under s.26 of the Adoption and Children Act 2002 an order can be made compelling a local authority or adoption agency to look for adopters who will facilitate contact, at least until the adoption order is made, at which point any order for direct contact under s.26 would need to be replaced by a s.51A order.
It is important to note that the position as set out in Re R (2005) EWCA Civ 1128 remains, in that ‘save for there being extremely unusual circumstances, no order will be made to compel adopters to accept contact arrangements with which they do not agree’.
But what value does ongoing sibling contact bring? And why should it be the priority? Like many, I was always of the view that we expend our energy considering whether children can remain in the birth family, rather than looking at whether they can remain with siblings as a priority. Recently I had the pleasure of speaking to a young person involved in the care system whose younger siblings were adopted. Hearing her experience opened my eyes to the emotions that she carries – guilt, and a deep yearning to know her siblings are safe now, combined with anger at the Court system for carefully considering contact, including letterbox contact for her parents whilst failing to consider the same for her.
Suffice to say, I will now be actively considering sibling contact, whether that be direct or simply letterbox contact to siblings. It won’t always be appropriate, but it is always worth the thought.
Family Rights Group – Siblings in Care, 2015
University of East Anglia, Research In Practice – Contact After Adoption Study, 2013