Sibling contact for looked after children

Children and Social Work Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 12 January 2017.

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‘(1) In section 34(1) of the Children Act 1989, after paragraph (d) insert—

“(e) his siblings (whether of the whole or half blood).”

(2) In paragraph 15(1) of Schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989, after paragraph (c) insert—

“(d) his siblings (whether of the whole or half blood).”’

This new clause would ensure that children in care are allowed reasonable contact with their siblings.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families)

This new clause relates to improving sibling contact for children in care. The Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to allow a looked-after child reasonable contact with their parents, but there is no similar provision for a looked-after child’s contact with their siblings or half-siblings. Work by the Family Rights Group shows that half of all sibling groups in local authority care are split up and that those in residential care are even less likely to be living with their brothers or sisters.

The Children and Young Person’s Act 2008 includes a duty on local authorities to place siblings together as far as reasonably practicable as that is generally the best option for them. I accept that in some cases, such as when there has been inter-sibling abuse, separation may be deemed necessary. However, the main barrier to siblings being placed together is a dire shortage of foster placements able or equipped to take sibling groups. Research has shown that the average number of sibling foster carers is one per local authority, and some have none at all. Even when there are sibling carers, there are no figures for how many siblings they can take. It could be a group of two, three, four or five.

That is the backdrop against which sibling contract is so important. If siblings cannot be placed together, they should have the same rights defined in legislation to have contact with one another as they do with their parents.

Many siblings who come from neglectful or abusive backgrounds often state that their only constant, positive and reassuring relationship is with their siblings. After all, they have a shared experience—and no matter how horrific it is, it is something only they truly know about. For a younger sibling, the older one is the only person who kept them safe. It is never appropriate for an older sibling to take on that role, but it is a fact that they often do.

Separating siblings in such circumstances can have consequences on placement stability and create anxiety for both the younger and older one. The younger may be worried about their new environment with strangers in an unfamiliar environment without their older protector, and the older may be in a similar situation, as well as not knowing how their younger sibling is coping or who is looking after them. If siblings have known only adults who cause them harm, the initial days in placement until they feel safe with their new carers are the most precarious.

Efforts to increase the number of carers who will take sibling groups have not matched the scale of demand. As the number of children in care rises, it is unlikely that the number of carers will catch up any time soon. In this context, it is right that sibling contact is given the same prominence as parental contact. It cannot be right that our legislation gives more weight to a child’s contact with those who may have or have caused them significant harm than with their siblings who are totally blameless.

Removing a child from a family home is one of the most traumatic and heartbreaking experiences for any children’s social worker. It means that the relationship dynamics of working with a family to improve children’s lives and to make sure they are protected from harm have reached crisis level. This may be an emotional overload for professionals, let alone the family, and often involves the police, violence, tears and aggression. The list goes on.

I recall from my own practice many occasions when I was left with a child alone in a car after the initial trauma of removing them, and having to explain to them at some roadside that not only were they going to be living somewhere else for a period that no one was sure about, but that they were going to be separated from their siblings. That is the most painful of all. No matter how the situation is explained, children often feel that that is the end—of not only their family, but their relationships with their siblings. As each child in a sibling group is dropped off at their respective placement, there is muted relief that they are safe, but deep sadness that they are completely alone.

The wheels of social services then spring into action. Solicitors for parents demand in court to have contact, as enshrined in legislation for parents, and that is arranged with urgency. In a resource-poor environment, what has to be done is often what is done first. Other issues, such as guidance that recognises the importance of maintaining contact with siblings, take a back seat and are deemed a lesser priority.

Many siblings see each other at contact with their parents, which can be three or four times a week for one hour, but they rarely have sibling-only contact. When they do, it will be monthly or considerably less often. Worse still, if that sibling is a newborn or not a full sibling, contact with their parents is separate and plans for their future are made separately. That breaks that early attachment between newborns and their elder siblings before it has fully developed, leaving an unimaginable feeling of loss for the siblings. However, the parents’ contact with the newborn is upheld, even if all of the children could be reunited at home with their parents, or if they are placed for permanence together, which again brings more difficulties when settling into a new permanent home.

The sibling relationships of children from abusive homes are the most enduring. A recent Ofsted study found that 86% of all children in care thought it was important to keep siblings together in care, while more than three quarters thought councils should help to keep children in touch with their siblings. A recent Centre for Social Justice report stated:

“One of our greatest concerns is that the bonds between siblings in care, which can lead to greatly valued lifelong relationships, are being broken.”

We all know that guidance is no substitute for a clear duty. While not everything can be in the Bill, if we really value and understand sibling relationships we should absolutely allow their voices to be heard in the legislation.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Minister of State (Education)

Again, I thank the hon. Lady for her amendment. I have a lot of sympathy for what she said and welcome many of the points she raised. Like her, I have extensive experience of situations in which decisions are being made about brothers or sisters’ futures together. Those are often difficult decisions, not only because of the circumstances in which those children happen to be, but often because of their complex family relationships.

The hon. Lady raised practical points about finding placements for them that meet all those children’s needs. I was chair of the all-party parliamentary group on looked-after children and care leavers before becoming a Minister, and I heard at almost every meeting of the need to listen to children who value their relationship with their sibling. I hope that most of us know from our own lives that it is our brothers and sisters who provide us with the most enduring relationships throughout our whole lives. Sibling contact can provide continuity and stability for a child—particularly those who are vulnerable at a time of uncertainty and, possibly, great change. It can help a child to maintain their identity in what could be an unfamiliar environment for them, and it can help to promote their self-esteem and provide them with additional emotional support.

I do not disagree with much of what the hon. Lady said. It is a matter of making sure that we have the balance right in legislation, so that those who are making those difficult decisions are able to do so against a backdrop of understanding the importance of those relationships for those children, but always in those children’s best interests. The new clause seeks to add an express duty to the Children Act 1989 for local authorities to allow a looked-after child reasonable contact with his or her siblings, which is absolutely right when it is in the best interests of the child.

I reassure hon. Members that that is already provided for under existing legislation, and any reading of case law, in Family Law Reports or elsewhere, will reveal that, in contact cases, sibling contact arrangements are carefully considered by the courts before they make a decision. Section 34(2) of the Children Act 1989 states:

“On an application made by the authority or the child, the court may make such order as it considers appropriate with respect to the contact…between the child and any named person.”

“Any named person” includes, as is well established in law, half and full siblings. Similarly, schedule 2(15)(1) to that Act requires local authorities to endeavour to promote contact between the child and any relative, friend or other person connected with the child if that is consistent with the child’s welfare and is reasonably practical.

Matters relating to sibling contact are also spelt out in the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010. If a child has a sibling for whom the responsible authority or another authority are providing accommodation, and the children have not been placed together, arrangements must be made to promote contact between them, so far as is consistent with the child’s welfare. Also, matters relating to contact with parents and siblings must be included in a child’s placement plan.

In my experience, where this process goes wrong is when there is practice on the ground that is not keeping pace with what the law requires and which cannot be fixed by trying to duplicate legislation that already exists. The legal framework for not only allowing contact between siblings but for placing them together where that is in their best interests is already comprehensive and clear.

At the review of a child’s care plan, consideration should be given as to whether sibling contact commitments in care plans have been appropriately implemented and whether the child is happy with the contact they have with their siblings. It should be checked that the child is happy with both the frequency and quality of that contact. Again, if the practice in this area is following the clear requirements, all of that checking should happen as a matter of course. However, where the practice is not following those requirements, it is a question of ensuring that the professionals who are there to ensure that a child’s views are taken into consideration are carrying out their duties effectively.

Furthermore, the care planning statutory guidance, which local authorities must act under, is unambiguous: the child’s views on sibling contact should be included in all assessments and reviews. We know that enduring relationships are often what gives people the resilience they need when things go wrong, so the importance of maintaining sibling contact for looked-after children cannot be underestimated. I hope that point comes out clearly from this debate.

Clearly, sibling contact has to be in the best interests of the children being looked after. I know from my time as a family law barrister and as a foster sibling that there will be circumstances when, as the hon. Member for South Shields said, sibling contact is not appropriate, but where it is appropriate it must be properly supported. The legislation that I have referred to provides for precisely the flexibility that is needed, on a case-by-case basis.

I have thought carefully about the hon. Lady’s proposition. What draws me back from it is the need to enable these decisions to be made on a case-by-case basis, with the flexibility that the court requires. The legislation that already exists ensures that, as Ofsted findings have shown recently, siblings are being kept together and placed without undue delay in most circumstances. There is good cause to believe that although there needs to be improvement in practice—I am happy at a future date to discuss with the hon. Lady how we can go about trying to do that—the legal framework in place is sufficient to ensure that sibling contact is being properly considered at every stage of a child’s involvement with both children’s services and the court process.

On that basis, I hope that I have sufficiently reassured the hon. Lady for her to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Emma Lewell-Buck Emma Lewell-Buck Shadow Minister (Education) (Children and Families) 12:00, 12 January 2017

I thank the Minister for that response. However, I am a little disappointed that although he says he has sympathy and understands what I am proposing, and he has quoted some provisions, he knows all too well—as well as I do—that in a resource-poor environment what is an absolute must is what is done, and that sibling contact, including half-sibling contact, is given lesser weight than other issues.

My new clause would allow case-by-case consideration, so I am really disappointed that the Minister does not support it. I want to have further discussions with him, but I also want to press the new clause to a vote, because it is a simple amendment that would remedy some big problems that children face right now. I am really disappointed that it is not being supported.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 4, Noes 8.

Division number 15 Seasonal Working — Sibling contact for looked after children

Aye: 4 MPs

No: 8 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

New Clause 16