Who are our closest living relatives? You might at first think ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’. Our parents bring us into the world and their genes, personalities and parenting skills all usually leave very firm footprints across our lives. But actually the answer is our siblings. Our brothers or sisters are closest because they are the only people on the planet to have exactly the same forebears as ourselves. Yes, they may annoy and frustrate us at times, but I suspect that is often as much because of our shared genes as despite them.
Unless we are an only child, we share our parents with our siblings and if we are very unlikely, we may also share the experience of entering care. With all their shared history, siblings can be a great support for each other in that difficult situation. Their bond brings a sense of the familiar and reassuring to the disorientating newness of a children’s home or foster or foster placement. And thankfully, the family law system now recognises this truth. Official policy is for brothers and sisters to be fostered or adopted together unless there is a good reason for this not to happen.
So it is sad to read just how many kids going into care are still separated from their brothers and sisters. According to new figures from charity the Fostering Network, more than a third (34 per cent) of foster families have looked after children whose sibling were elsewhere in the last two years. That’s roughly 17,000 individual families.
Other figures released by the charity suggest a system under strain – one in three foster carers, for example, reported feeling under pressure to take in children they did not think they were properly equipped to cope with. So no doubt corner cutting and lack of funding lies behind the separation of siblings too.
Calling at the beginning of Foster Care Fortnight for more potential carers, the charity’s Chief Executive Robert Tapsfield said:
“Children who come into care have usually had traumatic experiences in their lives and have often suffered abuse or neglect. They need a stable and loving home to help them turn their lives around.”
He told the Independent:
“Being separated from brothers and sisters just adds to the difficulties [foster children] are facing, and makes it harder to settle into their new lives”.
It would be hard to argue with that, or with the assessment of Natasha Finlayson of care charity Who Cares?, when she described the rate of sibling separation as “really shocking”.
In the Independent’s article, we find the testimony of Scottish charity work Kevin Browne. Separated from four of his five siblings when he was taken into care the age of three, he has struggled to rebuild a relationship with them ever since.
He told the paper:
“In parts it’s horrific; in other parts it’s confusing, and with my brothers it’s a continual journey to build up a relationship with them. I feel like a massive bond has been broken.”
As if determined to make a bad situation even worse, the government’s recently introduced ‘bedroom tax’ financially penalises foster families in receipt of housing benefit who look after more than one child. They may make sympathetic noises but it is in such deliberate moves that the current government shows where its true sympathies lie.