Today’s report by the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme highlights the increase in the number of sibling groups being separated in care. The last year has seen a significant rise of almost 50 per cent in the number of brothers and sisters in England (where figures are available) who are not living together even though their plan says they should be. That's almost 2,000 children in England alone who are not experiencing the shared childhood with their siblings that they ought to be. This is unacceptable on a number of levels, not least that it compounds the trauma that young people face when coming into care.
Of course, it may not always be in the best interests of siblings to be fostered together, but these figures are talking about children who are not placed according to their plan, and The Children Act 1989 requires local authorities in England and Wales to place a child with their siblings 'if reasonably practicable and consistent with their welfare'. Similar legislation exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yet too often this is not happening.
Why is this? Very obviously, there are not enough foster carers who can look after a group of siblings. Last year, in a survey we conducted, 86 per cent of fostering services told us they had a particular need for more foster carers for sibling groups. This is mainly because of a lack of space, but caring for two or three children who may have experienced neglect or abuse is a bigger commitment than caring for one child. However, those foster carers who do care for siblings often find it incredibly rewarding, especially when they consider that otherwise the siblings might have to be split up. You can watch a short film about one such carer here.
What is vital is that where brothers and sisters are not able to live together there is an emphasis on them being able to spend good quality time together. This may involve placing children in foster families who live in close proximity, or facilitating regular well-planned contact.
One possible solution to the issue of space and ensuring regular contact between siblings is our Mockingbird programme. This works on the basis of fostering 'hubs' with a hub carer offering support and respite to a number of fostering households. These households come together regularly for events, training, social activities, homework clubs and so on. This means that siblings could be placed in separate foster families but still have regular and natural interaction with each other through the Mockingbird hub.
It is clear that there is a disturbing upward trend that is seeing more and more brothers and sisters living apart in care. Fostering services must do all they can to recruit foster carers who have the skills and room to look after sibling groups. They must provide sufficient financial support to foster families who look after siblings, as well as essential practical support. Central governments must ensure that sufficient funding is in place to enable this to happen.