This week The Adoption, Fostering and Kinship Care Association (AFKA) are hosting Adoption Week Scotland with a series of events throughout the country. With the theme of the week being ‘Listening to and Supporting the Experience of Adoption in Scotland’, our Head of Legal Policy, Katy Nisbet, discusses how maintaining contact with your brothers and sisters can be integral to a positive adoption experience. Siblings represent a sense of who we are and where we are from. Moreover, maintenance of these relationships can contribute significantly to the wellbeing of the sibling group as a whole.
As Lady Hale and Lord Hodge stated in their joint judgment in the ABC v The Principal Reporter and Anor 2020 S.C. (U.K.S.C) 47:
‘Siblings can be as important as parents in the lives of those who have them. While parents have been likened to the doctors doing their ward rounds to see the bigger picture, siblings have been likened to nurses: they are there every day’
Since this judgement the importance of the sibling relationship has been recognised in law and policy in Scotland, at both national and local government level, nonetheless the way in which it is put in to practice means there are still barriers to maintaining these relationships through the adoption process and beyond. This blog considers the current duties and how their proper implementation would go a long way to strengthening the bonds between siblings throughout their care journey, and ensure that the voice and the views of the child and their siblings are properly considered when adoption is proposed.
What the law says about siblings
Who is a sibling?
Following the case of ABC new legislation came into force in July 2021. The Children (Scotland) Act 2020 introduced new duties and rights in relation to sibling contact. It also confirmed that siblings are:
- Brothers and sisters who have at least one parent n common; as well as
- People who have lived together and have an ongoing ‘sibling-like’ relationship.
The second part of that definition really widens the scope of who social work should have in their contemplation when considering their duties under Act.
Duties on Local Authorities
This legislation also introduced new duties that apply to all children and young people who are looked after by their local authority – whether that is on a CSO, under a permanence order, or on a voluntary basis. From the outset of the care journey a local authority has to consider the impact on sibling relationships and maintain and facilitate them where that is appropriate to do so.
They have specific duties to:
- Place siblings together where appropriate;
- Promote sibling contact where siblings are not living together; and
- Take into account the views of siblings when making decisions about their brothers and sisters.
The last duty is one that we find is not being routinely considered, particularly where a decision is being made to place a sibling for adoption or to move to permanence. The failure to undertake this consultation at this stage can have a huge impact on a child’s experience of adoption and the bonds they can maintain. That said it is failures in implementation of the local authority sibling duties well before a decision to place for adoption has been made that can have the most devastating impact on maintaining the sibling relationship in the long term.
Fail to Plan: Plan to Fail
By failing to consider whether siblings could be placed together when planning care placements in the first instance, or failing to facilitate adequate contact between siblings where they are not, the relationship suffers a fracture. This is important not only in the way in which it impacts on wellbeing, but certain legal tests later down the line rely on being able to establish that the relationship is an ongoing one. The continuing nature of the relationship is also taken into account when considering how, and even if, a sibling’s voice and views are heard through the adoption process. If there has been no contact then demonstrating that the relationship is strong and ongoing is difficult, even where the relationship breakdown has occurred through no desire of the siblings themselves.
Indeed it is often argued that to attempt to re-establish the relationship in advance of an adoption order would not be in the best interests of the child who is to be adopted. That is a very short term view, and it is not balanced out with a recognition of the longer term effects, the lack of knowing your siblings, of knowing fundamentally who you are, which can have a huge impact on wellbeing, mental health and behaviour later on in life. A broader view should be taken and consideration given to ways in which a sibling relationship could be restarted that minimises the immediate disruption, and allows brothers and sisters to have a lifelong relationship with all the benefits that brings.
Thinking about the longer term benefits to maintaining relationships is critical here and that starts at the outset of the care planning process. Compliance with the new duties from the start is a critical part of that. While we are well aware of the structural and resource barriers that local authorities face in the implementation of these duties; a failure in the planning stage to ensure siblings have regular, meaningful contact with each other from the outset of their care journey – means failing siblings in the longer term. As a result the prospects of maintaining these critical, life affirming and lifelong relationships with their brothers and sisters after permanence and adoption are extremely low. More resource for local authorities along with a better understanding of their duties in relation to siblings and the importance of implementing them from the outset is key to keeping siblings together and ensuring that children feel supported through their adoption experience and well into their future.