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Children in the Care System: Sibling Contact

Volume 672: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for allowing me time tonight to speak on behalf of the thousands of children in care who are separated from their siblings and the thousands of care experienced adults who had to, and still do, endure this pain.

The relationships that adults deem to be the most important for children in care are not the same as those that are most important to children in care themselves. Government guidance acknowledges that maintaining contact with siblings is reported by children to be one of their highest priorities. Having that relationship ripped away causes them anguish on many levels. An Ofsted study showed that 86% of children in care thought it was important to keep siblings together and that three quarters thought councils should help children to keep in touch with their siblings. Yet shamefully, sibling contact levels in the care system remain woeful.

The hon. Lady has brought a very important issue to the House for consideration, and it affects my constituents as well. Does she agree with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which says:

“Sustained contact with siblings can promote emotional stability and wellbeing for children in care. Siblings share an identity, which can promote their self-esteem and provide emotional support while going through care proceedings”?

That is an opinion that should be lent weight, and we must do all we can to provide siblings with a legal right to contact where there has been no accusation of abuse or any other extenuating safety issue.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and those comments echo the legislative changes that I will propose later in my speech.

Recent research undertaken by the Centre for Social Justice suggests that more than 70% of looked-after children with a sibling in care are separated from that brother or sister, which is not surprising when the average number of sibling foster carers is one per local authority and some have none at all. For those being cared for in children’s homes, the number of children separated from their siblings is a staggering 95%. It is also worth noting that we do not know the true scale of that heartache, because the Government do not think it is important enough to record and gather data on how many siblings are not in contact with each other in the care system.

Considering that the Government’s misguided, ideological austerity agenda has led to them presiding over a record 78,150 children in care, a shortage of foster and residential placements and less overall capacity in the social care sector, it is likely that the real picture is far worse. It is against that backdrop that sibling contact is so important.

The groundbreaking Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to allow a looked-after child reasonable contact with their parents, but there is no parity of provision for a looked-after child’s contact with their siblings. If siblings cannot be placed together, they should have exactly the same rights to contact defined in primary legislation as they do with their parents.

Many siblings who come from neglectful or abusive backgrounds state that the only constant positive, reassuring and enduring relationship they have is with their siblings. After all, they have a shared experience together. No matter how horrific, those experiences are ones that only they will ever truly know about. Often for younger siblings their protector—the one and only person who has ever kept them safe—is their sibling. While it is not appropriate that an elder sibling should take on that role, it is a fact that they often do. Separating siblings in those circumstances can have consequences for placement stability and create an anxiety for both the younger and the elder sibling. If all they have both ever known is adults who cause them harm, those initial days in placement until they feel safe with their new carers are the most precarious. In that context, it is only right that sibling contact is given the same prominence as parental contact. It cannot be right that our primary legislation gives more weight to a child’s contact with those who may have, or who have, caused them significant harm than it does to contact with their siblings, who are totally blameless.

I vividly remember and will have etched on my brain forever—although I wish I did not—the times when, as a practising social worker, I removed children from their family homes. A promise I gave to them, and to all the children I worked with, was that if I ever made it to this place I would not let them down, and that is what leads me to this debate tonight.

Removing children from home is one of the most traumatic and heartbreaking experiences. It can be emotional overload for professionals, let alone the family. There is often a police presence, violence, tears and utter confusion. Once calm and away from their home, you are left with children alone in your car, having to explain to them by some roadside that not only are they going to be living somewhere else for an open-ended period, but they are also going to be separated from their siblings. That is the most painful part of all: no matter how you explain the situation, children often feel that it is the end not only of their family relationships but of their relationship with their siblings. With each one of the children you drop off at their respective placements, you see a muted relief that they are safe, but a deep sadness that they are alone. The wheels of social services then spin into action. Solicitors for the parents and the courts demand contact as enshrined in legislation for parents. It is done with urgency, but in a resource-poor environment, what has to be done is often what is done first. Guidance that recognises the importance of maintaining contact with siblings takes a back seat and is deemed a lesser priority.

Of course, some children will see their siblings at their parental contact, but that will often be only three or four times a week for one hour. Sibling contact tends to be rare, and at times may be only monthly, for one hour. At the end of the care proceedings children may be reunited with their parents at home or placed for permanence with their siblings, but the complications that a lack of previous consistent contact can bring to those new arrangements may have implications for placement breakdowns and dire consequences for the wellbeing of the entire family.

I am sure the Minister will remind us that Government guidance recognises the importance of maintaining contact between siblings when they are in separate placements, but we all know that guidance is no substitute for a clear duty. If the Government really valued and understood sibling relationships, they would allow their voices to be heard loud and clear with the full force of primary legislation. By simply amending section 34 and schedule 2 to the Children Act 1989 to include siblings and half-siblings, they would ensure that upsetting, harmful and costly cases could be avoided.

In one such case, five siblings had been in a placement together for five years. The fostering team agreed to move them to another authority with their carers, but then ripped the children’s worlds apart just before the move, advising them that they would be split up and that two of the siblings would go to a new placement. An advocacy service acting for the children took the case to court. The judge deemed that there was a case for judicial review, as article 8 of the European convention on human rights had been breached. The local authority eventually compensated the children, but they were never reunited, and spent the rest of their childhoods not only apart from each other but with zero contact. Two of the children never settled, and suffered immense feelings of loss not just for their siblings but for their former carers. How any Minister cannot grasp the opportunity to stop such utter destruction of children’s lives is staggering.

Throughout the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, the then Minister, now the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson), said that the Government harboured concerns that the changes that I was proposing—along with a plethora of experts and organisations—would not provide the flexibility for a case-by-case consideration of contact, but of course they would. The welfare checklist and other safeguards to ensure that parental contact is in the child’s best interest would apply in the same way to siblings. The Minister also promised that the Government would look at the anomaly in the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010, which do not provide for contact with siblings who are not looked after. Three years on, however, no changes have been made.

In the year in which we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Children Act and the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, amid continued criticism of the Government’s appalling record in respect of our most vulnerable children, the new Minister could prove that the Government care about children and are ready to break away from the damaging trajectory they have been on for the last 10 years. She could commit herself to enacting one small yet profoundly important and significant legislative change. I just hope that in her response to my speech she will not let me down, but, more importantly, I hope that she will not let down the thousands of children who are currently having zero contact with their siblings.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) on securing this important debate. She is always a strong advocate for vulnerable children and young people, and has great experience in this area.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important topic of sibling contact for children in care. As the new Children and Families Minister, I want to thank foster parents, social workers, children’s services, and all those who dedicate their time, effort and skills to improving the lives of those children. I also thank the children themselves. I am committed to ensuring that all looked-after children benefit from the care and support to which every child is entitled. It is an important responsibility to ensure that vulnerable children are kept safe and are able to flourish.

The Government are implementing a wide range of reforms designed to improve outcomes. We will be taking forward a bold and broad review of the social care system, with the aim of better supporting, protecting and improving the outcomes of children and young people and their families. For the majority of looked-after children, maintaining family links through contact with parents, siblings, relatives and other connected people is extremely important. Contact can be crucial in helping them to develop their sense of identity, promote self-esteem and provide emotional support. Keeping in touch is consistently one of the most important issues that children and young people themselves raise, and I am really grateful to have the opportunity to discuss this today.

Each child’s needs, wishes and welfare must be considered when making decisions about their care. For many children, having contact with family, friends and others is hugely valued, and can help to support a stable and successful placement. That is why plans for promoting and maintaining contact must be included in every child’s care plan. By statute, a care plan must set out arrangements for the promotion and maintenance of contact with brothers and sisters, whether they are also in care or not, as long as this is consistent with the child’s welfare. The type of contact a young person has with their siblings needs careful consideration and planning, and should always be determined by what is best for the children concerned. Contact arrangements must be reviewed regularly, including by gathering and acting on the wishes and feelings of each individual child. However, while contact with siblings can be hugely valuable, it might not be the right decision in every case. Relationships are often complex and involve a range of emotions and potential risks.

The legal framework is clear on allowing contact between siblings and placing them together where it in their best interests. Historically, there have been concerns that some contact arrangements were not made on the assumption that contact should always take place.[Official Report, 16 March 2020, Vol. 673, c. 6MC.]

On that point, could the Minister please advise me where that is to be found in primary legislation?

I shall come to the specifics just now.

This was why the Children and Families Act 2014 emphasised that contact should not directly undermine the welfare and safeguarding of children in care. Schedule 2 to the Act requires that local authorities promote contact between a looked-after child and any relative, friend or other person connected with the child as long as this is consistent with the child’s welfare and is reasonably practical. That includes siblings. Section 34(2) enables a court to make a contact order between a child in care and any named person. This may of course include—

Just let me finish this sentence, if I may, as it will bring me to what I think the hon. Member wants me to say about what we are going to do next.

Section 34(2) enables a court to make a contact order between a child in care and any named person. This may of course include any siblings, whether or not they are also in the care system. As the hon. Member rightly said, during the passage of the Children and Social Work Bill in 2017, we committed to updating the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010. This would make explicit reference to contact with siblings who are not looked after, as well as those who are. We have begun an internal review of the regulations, and I am pleased to confirm to her, within my first few weeks in this job, that we intend to update the regulations before the end of this year, alongside implementing the Government’s response to the current consultation on unregulated provision.

I thank the Minister for that, but with all due respect, will she please confirm that sibling contact is not mentioned anywhere in primary legislation? That is the point of this debate.

I would like to confirm that it refers to any relative, which can include any siblings, but I take the hon. Lady’s point and I will look at it. As I said, we will be updating the regulations.

Ultimately, all contact decisions should be based on each child’s individual circumstances. The current legislation provides for flexibility for decisions to be made case by case, and we have committed to revising the statutory guidance on fostering to ensure that it is clear, straight- forward and focused on the importance of the child’s voice. This will emphasise the need for relationships outside immediate placements to provide young people with a sense of belonging that lasts into adulthood. Those revisions will need to be undertaken in consultation with children, foster parents and other stakeholders. We will set out a timetable for that in due course.

The role of the independent reviewing officer is key to making sure that, where appropriate, sibling contact takes place. They must check that the child is happy with their contact with siblings, and that the frequency and quality of contact are right for them.

We know that the quality and consistency of IRO services remains variable, and we are working to promote a coherent strategy for improvement. We have formed a new steering group with the national IRO organisations and key national partners. Furthermore, there is a specific requirement for the care plan to set out arrangements for the promotion and maintenance of contact with brothers and sisters, as far as is consistent with the child’s welfare. That is in paragraphs 3(1) and 3(4) of schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 care planning guidance.

Regarding advocacy, which the hon. Lady mentioned, all children must have access to an advocate to help them express their feelings and to ensure that their views are taken into account. This especially includes their views on sibling contact. We have committed to improve the awareness of and access to advocacy services for children and young people.

On Monday evening, I was delighted to announce that the Government will take this commitment forward through consultation later this year on a revised and fully updated version of the national standards for advocacy for children. We have also confirmed that we will extend the advocacy “safety net” service, Always Heard, run by Coram Voice, for another 12 months.

Foster parents play a crucial role in supporting the children in their care to stay in touch with the people who matter to them. We know that it often falls to carers to facilitate contact between children and their families, and that this can be challenging. In 2018, the Government published “Fostering Better Outcomes”, which sets out our vision for the foster care system in England. Through “Fostering Better Outcomes”, we urged social workers to talk to children about what is important to them, including former foster parents and foster siblings. We called for this contact to be encouraged and facilitated if it is what is best for that child.

Foster parents are often best placed to understand the child and their needs, so it is essential that they are included in the decision-making process and properly supported to manage contact arrangements. We want to understand where this partnership working is working well, how we can share good practice and how to ensure that foster carers are always an integral part of placement planning. Therefore, we will launch a network of fostering trailblazers this year. That will initially focus on support for foster carers, ensuring that they are empowered to have input into decisions for the children in their care, including on supporting children through contact.

I also want to put on record my support for the Fostering Network’s campaign, Keep Connected, which promotes maintaining relationships for children and young people through and beyond periods of transition.

Maintaining relationships and contact with siblings, family or other trusted individuals can help to give children the stability they need to develop. We want children to experience stable care placements and the consistency of relationships, and for them to keep in touch with the people who are most important to them.

The Minister is generous in giving way again.

What checks do the Government carry out on how many children and young people in the care system actually have contact with the siblings they are separated from?

As the hon. Lady has said, the Government do not have statistics on that, but we are looking at reviewing the regulations and, as I have just said, sharing better practice.

We want children to experience stable care placements and consistent relationships, and we want them to be able to keep in touch with the people who are most important to them. We need to equip social workers with the skills and knowledge to make effective decisions on permanence and the importance of relationships. That is one reason why we have funded the development of continuous professional development resources focused on permanence, and this material is now available to the sector.

Enduring relationships are often what gives us the resilience that we all need when things go wrong, so the importance of maintaining contact with siblings and other trusted individuals cannot be overestimated—I understand that. Contact with siblings is the right thing to do when it is in the best interests of an individual child.

This is the first time I have spoken in a debate as a Minister, so let me reassure the House that I am committed to securing the best possible outcomes for children and young people in care. I look forward to working across the Floor with Members who have such experience to make sure that these children are happy, and are able to have happy, stable and fulfilling lives.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.