A report by the Family Rights Group (FRG) has found that half of all sibling groups are separated when they come into Local Authority care. The report by Cathy Ashley and David Roth “…investigates the current experience of siblings in the care system and whether some placement types are more likely to enable siblings to be raised together”.
The FRG wrote to all 152 Local Authorities and made freedom of information requests. Of these, 122 Authorities responded.
What were the findings of the report?
The study found that sibling groups mostly only stayed together when the children were living with family or friends.
The charity found 49.5% of sibling groups in Local Authorities are separated.
37% of children in care, who have at least 1 other sibling in care, is not living with a sibling.
They also found that of the sibling groups placed together 23% were living within family and friends foster care.
What were the recommendations of the report?
The Family Rights Group report has made seven recommendations:
- The presumption should be that it is in the interests of siblings to be placed together unless it is contrary to an individual child’s welfare needs.
- Where children are not living with their siblings, their relationship should be supported and nurtured.
- Local Authorities should make suitable provision to meet the needs of sibling groups.
- There should be a new legal duty to ensure potential placements with family and friends as carers are always explored and assessed for suitability including offering all families family group conferencing.
- The Government should regulate to require Local Authorities to publish a family and friends care policy to maximise the identification of and support for families and friends carers and place a new duty on Local Authorities to establish and commission family and friends care support services.
- The Government should adequately fund free specialist independent legal advice and information services to family and friends.
- Local Authorities should review their approach to sibling carers.
These are great recommendations, and the report does acknowledge the law which is currently governing this area of children law.
Why are children removed from their main carers?
It is important to remember that when children are removed from their main carers by a Local Authority, this is only done in circumstances when the child’s welfare requires it. This could be for a number of reasons. A child’s welfare may be at risk of harm for any number of reasons. It may include risk of harm from a parent (or carer); parent’s partner; other family member or other person linked to the family, for example.
Why do sibling groups become separated?
Local Authorities and courts work very hard to keep children together; contrary to popular belief, social workers do not aim to split families up. It is widely acknowledged that, where possible, siblings should remain together. The report correctly states that there is a legal duty upon Local Authorities to place sibling groups together, so far as reasonable and practicable, under the Children and Young Persons Act 2008. Large families can often mean that a placement together is not possible; however, that is not the bigger picture.
Any decisions made in relation to children have to be made in their best interests. Local Authorities, when they have children in their care, may not always share parental responsibility with parents, for the children. This means that decisions must be made with parents or those sharing parental responsibility. This can have implications for sibling groups. For example, if a Local Authority does not have an in-house placement or local placement for the siblings together, they could look to another area. Depending on the size of the Local Authority, the placement options for siblings could be a foster placement several miles away. Parents may not agree to such a placement if it is going to impact on them seeing the children or having to change schools.
Social workers often do look to family members to care of children, in the event a parent cannot. Exploration of family members can be very challenging. Sometimes, a parent will not want to provide details of their family members or simply state there is no one within their family who could care for them. If a mother does not live with the father of the children she can sometimes be unwilling to tell the Local Authority who the father is. She may not wish him to play any part in her children’s lives or have any involvement from paternal family.
This can cause significant problems for a Local Authority. If a father is named on a birth certificate, then a social worker has a starting point if a mother refuses to provide his details. Unfortunately, if a father is not named on a birth certificate the task can be nigh-on impossible. New technology, such as Facebook, can be very useful in such circumstances.
Sibling groups can be split up in various ways when all these options are explored. For instance, they can be split amongst different family members, or different families if they have different fathers.
Will this report lead to changes that will allow sibling groups to remain together?
These recommendations are very positive. Unfortunately, the very harsh reality is that all these recommendations require Local Authorities to utilise perhaps a large part of the relevant budget. In an ideal world a Local Authority would not need to be involved in family life in the way it can be. However, at present the courts are receiving an increasing number of new care applications. In December 2014 alone there were 918 new care applications, an increase of 13%.
Currently, in addition to increasing care proceedings, many Local Authorities are facing significant budget cuts. Front line services are being affected. Each week contact centres close, removing vital services from families who use them to see their children or to attend family courses. Large numbers of social workers are leaving the profession due to stress caused by high caseloads.
In times of such austerity it is difficult to see where the necessary funds will come from to implement the recommendations. I do not disagree with the recommendations. To have even a hope of implementation, and to prevent further separation of siblings, government funding is going to be necessary.
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