Life without siblings – policy wins and reality losses

February 1st 2022

Our new Legal Policy Manager Katy Nisbet reflects on why the recent BBC documentary ‘Split Up In Care – Life Without Siblings’ resonated so deeply with her as she settles into her new role at Clan Childlaw.

Last week, while getting ready for work in my new role as Legal Policy Manager at Clan Childlaw, I stumbled across an interview on BBC Breakfast which really caught my attention.  Ashley John-Baptiste, a BBC reporter, was discussing his new documentary ‘Split Up In Care – Life Without Siblings’.  Care experienced himself, Ashley moved between four foster carers and a residential home during his time in care. His interview was very open about the traumatic impact of these moves.  He talked about feelings of rejection and the lack of control over family relationships and how this affected his sense of belonging, of family, and of self. 

Ashley believed he was an only child until a chance Facebook message in his mid-20s revealed that he had four older brothers, all of whom lived near him. Ashley believes that if he had known about his siblings and had spent time with them regularly, it ‘would have been a lifeline’ for him during his childhood.  This discovery was the catalyst for a documentary examining the state of sibling relationships in the current UK care system.

Sibling Rights – Policy Wins

Sadly, the statistics that Ashley quotes in the documentary come as no surprise to me after only three weeks in my new role. That half of all sibling groups are separated in care, meaning that over 12,000 children and young people in the UK are living apart from a brother or sister, makes for all too familiar reading if you work at Clan.  After Clan was founded in 2008, it quickly became clear to our lawyers that losing touch with brothers and sisters was a common issue for care experienced children and young people in Scotland. Recognising that sibling relationships can be among the most important and longest lasting of our lives, Clan Childlaw has been working ever since to protect the relationships of brothers and sisters, to stop them losing touch and keep them living together wherever possible.

Clan worked tirelessly alongside the Stand Up for Siblings coalition to make sure that sibling relationships became a priority within the Children’s Hearing system and that children and young people could have a say in decisions about seeing their siblings. In 2019, Clan Childlaw took the issue of sibling rights all the way to the Supreme Court, raising awareness of a gap in legislation to protect the relationships of brothers and sisters. In July 2021, this case and years of campaigning led to new laws emphasising that brothers and sisters should live together whenever possible. Children and young people also now have the right to have a say in their brother or sister’s Children’s Hearing when decisions are being made that might affect them seeing each other. As Ashley highlights in his documentary, these changes mean that Scotland is, at least on paper, leading the way in giving siblings more control over their relationships.

Sibling Rights – Reality Losses

So why did his documentary resonate with me so deeply?  These changes to the law happened over six months ago, well before I started working at Clan Childlaw. Surely the bulk of the work for change had already been done; the problem well on its way to being resolved. So why are sibling rights still front and centre of Clan’s policy work? Why are our lawyers still working every day with children who have been separated from their brothers and sisters?  

While the new sibling rights look good on paper, the reality is that the Children’s Hearing system is not set up to facilitate those rights in the way that they should. Children and young people who have the right to take part in a sibling’s Children’s Hearing often aren’t told that a hearing is happening, or find out too late to have their say. Even if they can participate, young people often aren’t given enough information to understand what’s happening to their brother or sister or to decide what they want.

More significantly, many children and young people can’t access the legal help they need to assert their rights. Children and young people do now have a right to be represented by a lawyer in a sibling’s Children’s Hearing, but legal aid rules have not been updated to reflect this. Funding for this type of work can’t be accessed through the Scottish Legal Aid Board. Applications must be made to the Scottish Government itself and, from our experience, this is a cumbersome system which is not set up to respond to urgent applications for help. 

Clan Childlaw is still able to help in these situations, as grant funding means that our lawyers can take on cases even when legal aid is not available. But many law firms rely on legal aid, meaning that children and young people are finding themselves without a lawyer just when they need one the most.

Sibling Rights – The Way Forward

At Clan Childlaw, our work to improve sibling rights in Scotland is far from over. Our lawyers will continue to work with individual brothers and sisters to make sure that their rights are upheld and their voices are heard. We will continue to push for the existing laws to be implemented properly, and over the coming months I will be looking closely at what still needs to change to make sure that care experienced children in Scotland are supported to build and maintain family bonds with their brothers and sisters.

Ashley’s documentary ‘Split up in Care: Life without Siblings’ is available on iPlayer.

Katy Nisbet joined Clan Childlaw in January 2022. As Legal Policy Manager her job is to influence legal and policy change in Government and across local authority areas. She does this with the aim of improving the rights of children and young people in Scotland.

Before coming to work at Clan Childlaw, Katy was a court lawyer working on behalf of public bodies across Scotland. When not at work Katy enjoys running her Brownie group, pilates and watching movies with her family.