In Part One of my Family Review I wanted to make sure we spoke to children in all kinds of families – those made up of married parents, blended families, single parents and more. But most importantly I wanted to make sure we captured what family life meant to those living in care, or with care experience. And the Review found that family was just as important to these children, and that they wanted the same things from it – love, stability, enjoyment – even if that was sometimes more complicated to achieve.
I want to see a children’s social care system that will do whatever it can to strengthen and support families so they can safely stay together. And if that is not possible, I have set out my vision for how they can live in stable, loving homes that are truly familial. In part two of my Family Review I wanted to explore one aspect of that vision in more detail, namely how children in care can best be supported in their relationships with their siblings.
I wanted to do this because time and again the children I speak to, and those who call my Help at Hand helpline, tell me how important these relationships with their brothers and sisters are to them. They talk not just about siblings related by birth, but those such as foster siblings or in blended families, who have become just as close. But the importance of these relationships is not always reflected in the decisions made about children. As one care experienced young person told me
‘I’m second oldest of six – nine if you count my lovely step-brothers – and I’ve had to spend most of my adult life as a care-experienced person rebuilding those relationships…I do have lovely relationships with all my other siblings, I’ve just had to put in the work. And I shouldn’t have had to’
In my conversations with children in care, too often it seems they do have to shoulder a weight of responsibility that they shouldn’t have to. I am left with a deep admiration for their resilience and maturity, but a sadness when I think of what they have been through to reach that point.
That is why I will be publishing new research early next year on sibling relationships. It will be based on new analysis on the data of siblings in care, as well as conversations with care experienced children and young people. I hope that the recommendations in it will help more children to sustain loving, happy relationships with their brothers and sisters.
But I also think they will have wider ramifications for the children’s social care system. Because the challenges in keeping siblings together whenever it is right to do so reflect some of the broader challenges with the system. Sometimes children are separated because they aren’t listened to closely enough, and their priorities aren’t given the weight they should be. Sometimes it is because decisions have to be taken in a hurry, with safety prioritised over all else. And sometimes it is because, even with the best will in the world, the right homes just can’t be found. I believe that with a relentless focus on listening to children, and prioritising their needs, we can build a children’s social care system that allows every child to have the happy family life they so deserve.