In supporting the rights of care experienced children and their brothers and sisters, we must look to creative, tailored solutions
Karen Morrison is the founder of Siblings Reunited (STAR), a charity which works to develop, nurture and sustain relationships between children who have brothers and sisters and have been separated while in care. In this blog post, Karen reflects on her experiences at STAR, what she’s learned, and the importance of new legislative changes for children in Scotland.
Since founding STAR, and in my time as a foster carer, I’ve seen and heard first-hand the impact of one of the most heart-breaking problems of the care system: children being separated from their brothers and sisters, at times in homes that are far away from each other, or being prevented from having a relationship at all. As a result, care experienced infants, children and young people can live apart for long periods of time, often without being in contact with each other in any way, and against their wishes.
Now, after years of awareness-raising and campaigning by so many, including care experienced people and Stand Up For Siblings, led by Dr Chris Jones, real change is starting to happen for children in care and their brothers and sisters. Scottish legislative changes, supported by new National Practice Guidance, have introduced a new legal duty to ensure that every ‘looked after’ child lives with their brothers and sisters, or near to them when this is not possible, and is able to sustain positive lifelong relationships with them when it is safe and they choose to do so.
This change in law is great news and marks an important step in ensuring better experiences for children. However, our learning from STAR has shown us time and again that, in implementing these changes, practitioners, agencies, parents and carers alike must look to creative solutions that are tailored to individual children and which place their views and experiences at the heart of decision-making.
Focusing on communication
For some children and their brothers or sisters, meeting together at STAR is the first face-to-face contact they’ve ever had. While often a very happy experience, it can also feel overwhelming, awkward, or different to what they expect. This needs to be handled in a way that is sensitive to each child’s circumstances, needs and age, and which incorporates their views, so we always ensure that there are activities that can be done from home beforehand to prepare them for their time together.
These activities can include whatever the children and their brothers and sisters prefer and often help to make things feel more natural when they see each other in person. As with all relationships in life, communication is vital in developing positive connections! Through their carers, children can choose to write letters and ask questions of each other, speak over the phone, or send photos of themselves and of things in their lives, which is a really important process. A lot of children have a natural excitement and curiosity about what their brothers or sisters look like and if there are similarities to them or their birth family. As much as children often look forward to meeting up, this gradual communication also helps to establish some facts or information they might need to understand beforehand so they aren’t surprised when they see each other. In some cases, a child may have had a relationship with their brothers and sisters but they haven’t seen each other for many years. An older child might therefore have memories of their brother or sisters at a younger age, or when they were a baby, so that’s who they expect to meet with, and it can be overwhelming or upsetting when they see how much they have grown and developed.
Thinking creatively to nurture relationships
When it’s time for children and their brothers and sisters to see each other for the first time or after a long period of time, it’s important that this begins in a place that’s new for everyone with a focus on the here and now.
While activities are usually planned with children in advance, it’s important to be able to adapt to how everyone is feeling on the day, their age group and interests. This means thinking creatively and in the moment. Sometimes larger brother and sister groups can include babies, children and young people. In many circumstances, it would be easy to focus exclusively on the younger children and keeping them entertained, leaving the older children to simply come along and watch. Similarly, some of the children that we spend time with have Additional Support Needs, and their brothers and sisters may automatically want to focus only on their needs rather than thinking about their own. It’s crucial that, regardless of age or circumstances, everyone can find activities to do together. For example, if we take a walk in the woods, we have a cart-type vehicle that younger children can sit in while the older children walk or cycle with us. We play with things like metal detectors so that children of all ages can participate in and enjoy, or do simple activities like cooking and eating together, or watching a film as a group – whatever the children want to do and agree on together.
On their first visit, children and their brothers and sisters take a photo together and each decorate a frame to take home as a memento of the experience. As they continue to develop their relationships, we take more photos so we can make photo books and albums together, and record short video clips. Helping to record these memories is so important for children of all ages, particularly younger ones who might not remember the visits as clearly when they’re older. Sometimes, as time goes on, the children can get these out to look at or watch together, which they really love, and which will be invaluable when they’re older.
As time goes on, and if children have known each other previously, we start to see less ‘past’ behaviour, for example, older children taking on caring roles, and tension that could lead to fighting or name-calling. Sometimes, a child may have been blamed by their brothers or sisters as being the reason why they’re in care. There are some very delicate dynamics that need to be handled sensitively, but, with time, it’s heart-warming to see such feelings fall away and connections become much more positive and familiar.
The best place in the world for children to grow up
The new legislative changes and National Practice Guidance are really making people think about the positive impact of sustaining relationships between children with brothers and sisters and addressing unnecessary separations. Now, if we want Scotland to be the best place in the world to grow up in, this must be implemented in a way which ensures siblings can live together, or, if that cannot happen, enables them to remain in close, regular contact.
Parents, carers, and practitioners alike need to think creatively about how children can enjoy their time together in a way that is tailored to them. Children need safe, loving family environments, but they also need those lasting connections with their brothers and/or sisters that are maintained from the very beginning. By focusing on the needs of individual children and young people, and ensuring their views and experiences are part of any decision-making, we can create the best environments for brother and sister relationships to flourish.
Other blogs in this series: