They are too often ripped apart right when they need each other most, causing distress, pain and fracturing once rock-solid sibling bonds.
But now the Scottish Government is to consider legislating to make sure brothers and sisters have a legal right to contact after they are taken into care.
Research shows that about 70 per cent of brothers and sisters in care are separated from at least one sibling, despite human rights law that should allow them to stay in touch.
Leading charities and lawyers responding to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the Children Scotland Act, which closed last week, have called for siblings to have the right stay together formalised in Scottish law.
In its submission Clan Child Law, a leading practice in child law based in Edinburgh, said the act should be clarified to make clear that court contact orders could be put in place that relate to siblings as well as parents. It also called for duties to be put on courts to seek a child’s view on what they wanted in terms of their ongoing relationship with siblings.
Alison Reid, principal solicitor of Clan Child Law, said: “Overall, looked after children have few enforceable rights in law in relation to placement and contact with siblings. Legislative change is needed to ensure contact between siblings is prioritised and the review of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 may provide one opportunity to do that.
“From our work representing looked after children and young people we know how important it is to them to be able to maintain their relationships with brothers and sisters, and the distress sibling separation and infrequent contact can cause.
Several recent pieces of research, including one commissioned for the Stand Up for Siblings campaign - launched earlier this year by a coalition of Scottish organisation – have found that it is one of the most commonly raised issues for young people in care.
For families who have had it tough, sibling relationships are more intense than normal. Trauma glues you together. Young person in care
A report by Who Cares Scotland’s Young Radicals – a group of care experienced young people – included stories from young people who talked about the profound sadness of sibling separation. One said he was only able to see his brother, with whom he was once “so close” for half an hour every month, while a different interviewee said he went for months at a time without seeing his siblings.
Another added: “For families who have had it tough, sibling relationships are more intense than normal. Trauma glues you together. But when you go into care siblings become unusually distant.” Siblings, said an interviewee, were often “the last shred of stability” when going into care, with subsequent separation causing heartbreak.
Nick Hobbs, head of advice and investigations for the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, said: “This is a perfect opportunity for the Scottish Government to take action on this issue. It’s something that care experienced children talk to us about regularly, about the pain and the distress of being separated from siblings, and the barriers in being able to take that forward to even ask about being able to see them.
He claimed children had the right to family life under ECHR Article 8, meaning there was “stopping local authorities from respecting those rights to make sure that young people are able to stay in contact”.
“Yet young people tell us it is not happening despite this,” he added. “I think we do now need to have a statutory duty to make sure that their rights are provided for and fulfilled.”
Professor Jennifer Davidson, Executive Director of the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS), agreed that all too often special bonds between brothers and sisters were not recognised by corporate parents.
“We know that many people are trying to deliver the very best care for these children, so we need to better understand what gets in the way of this important goal,” she said. “Importantly, Scotland needs to improve the way children’s care is planned, and develop more homes and carers who are able to support siblings to live together who have been separated through no fault of their own.’
“Brothers and sisters with care experience have often endured adversities in their early lives together. They have a unique understanding of one another’s life experiences and often their bonds are exceptionally strong. We must remember that these have the potential to be our longest, lifelong relationships, and as such they are so important to hold onto in children’s lives for their futures.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said it would now consider the consultation responses. She added: “We recognise the importance of sibling contact and our recent consultation asked whether the legislation should be amended to make it clear that siblings, including those under the age of 16, are able to apply for a contact order.”
Time for change
Kenny Murray, public affairs co-ordinator of Who Cares Scotland, was just 11 when he first went into care with his two brothers – aged seven and 10 – and his five and six-year-old sisters. Now 27, he is horrified that his own traumatic experience of sibling separation continues for children and young people in the care system even today.
“When we went into care it was an emergency placement and we were all together,” he says. “Then gradually we were dispatched to different areas. It wasn’t explained to me, it just happened. First my sisters went to one place, then my two brothers. It was very difficult.”
Left by himself he was then taken to a children’s home in the back of a police car, where he remembers high security gates topped with barbed wire and posters “protesting” about that the care unit was there at all.
“I was shown to a bedroom in the unit. The window didn’t open and there was nothing there – it was just a room with a bed. I didn’t have anything with me. I remember one of the other kids came and gave me a comic book to read. It would have made the world of difference to know I would be able to see my brothers and sisters.
“Nobody told me where my brothers and sisters were going. It was assumed that there wasn’t a place that would take all five of us but nobody explained.
“When I asked nobody seemed to have concrete answers. It was ‘maybe soon’, there were issues with resources. These were not credible answers for an 11-year-old boy who missed his siblings.”
It took two months, which was spent with a foster carer, until he was able to see them. “It compounded the trauma that my brothers and sisters weren’t there,” he says. “It’s one of the issues that Who Cares has been dealing with for 40 years. There is someone talking about it in our very first magazine in 1979 and in a poem in 1982 and yet it’s still happening.
“The idea that it’s a hassle to keep siblings in contact has to change. This is actual children’s lives. The Government needs to be brave and make the legislation needed to allow the change.”
This story appeared in the Sunday National on 7 October.