Charities stand up for care system siblings

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Helen (centre) with her two sisters. They were separated from each other and their two brothers when they were taken into care nine years ago.  

The movement, which has the backing of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, is aimed at improving and changing legislation, policy and practice

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17th April 2018 by Graham Martin 0 Comments

A charity led campaign aims to stop brothers and sisters from being separated when they are taken into care.

Stand Up For Siblings is a Scotland-wide collaboration between a number of child welfare, children’s rights and legal organisations and academics, including Clan Childlaw, Who Cares? Scotland, the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration, the University of Strathclyde and the Center for excellence for looked after children in Scotland (Celcis).

The movement, which has the backing of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, aims to improve and change legislation, policy and practice.

One of the impetuses for Stand Up For Siblings was research by Dr Christine Jones from the University of Strathclyde and Dr Gillian Henderson from the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration.

The research showed that we do not know how many children in care in Scotland have siblings also in care and how many are living apart from them.

That around 40% of children in adoptive or permanent fostering families in Scotland are living apart from all of their birth siblings.

And around 70% of children in adoptive or permanent fostering families in Scotland are separated from at least one of their birth siblings.

Dr Jones, one of the founders of Stand Up for Siblings, said: “We know that children who face adversity greatly value their relationships with siblings. Yet for care experienced children and young people these relationships often become disrupted.

“We believe more can be done to protect the rights and promote the wellbeing of brothers and sisters in such circumstances and we are working together to influence the law, policy and practice around this issue.

“We created Stand Up For Siblings as we believe that if we all work together, we can make a real difference to the lives of children and young people, plus ensure that they receive the right support and contact with their brothers and sisters.”

Kevin Browne-MacLeod, director of care experienced membership at Who Cares? Scotland, said: “A decision taken to separate brothers and sisters at one point in time, can and does have life life-long consequences.

“This year marks 40 years since Who Cares? Scotland officially began and for 40 years children have been separated from loved ones. Throughout that time, care experienced people have consistently told us that being separated from their brothers and sisters was one of the hardest things they had to go through.

“We believe this issue is vital to understanding why, and to what extent, the care system in Scotland needs to change and we are delighted to be working with our Stand Up For Siblings partners to make a real difference to the lives of brothers, sisters and our members both in and from care.”

A website has been launched to help raise awareness, provide young people with information about their rights and promote good practice among practitioners. 

People can also pledge their support to Stand Up For Siblings on the website. So far more than 70 individuals and organisations have signed the pledge.

Unbreakable bonds - Helen Johnston's story

Charities stand up for care system siblings

As a child growing up I didn’t like my brothers and sisters (Helen is pictured above, centre, with her sisters), we fought all the time, and very rarely got along. 

If you’d asked my parents they’d tell you that whenever my brothers, sisters and I were together we were an absolute nightmare.

But as much as we hated one another, we loved each other with a love so fierce that you’ll only ever truly understand it if you have brothers or sisters yourself. If one of us were the target of a bully suddenly there was four other very angry little people ready to fight for that one of us, and god help if that bully had made one of us cry. It didn’t matter what we faced in our young lives, we faced it together.

Growing up in the home environment that I did was in many ways torture, enough to reduce me many times to tears. But no matter what, I always knew that whatever happened I’d face it with those four other little people whom I hated and loved all in the same breath. Through the most difficult moments of our lives at home I took great comfort in the knowledge that no matter how much I fought with my little sisters and big brothers, if I put my hand out into the darkness there would be four other little hands waiting to clasp mine, and remind me that no matter what, we had each other.

They were my greatest strength and the only thing in my life that ever felt safe and familiar.

When I came into care, the most  difficult thing I faced was losing them. I didn’t care very much that I’d left my home, or the community that I had grown up in. I didn’t even care very much that I had been placed with strangers miles away from the only environment I had ever known. What did break me though was the absence I felt not having my brothers and sisters with me. Suddenly I was alone, I had nobody and nothing in this world that was safe anymore and that is a feeling that has followed me every single day over the last nine years since we were forced apart. I’ve spent half my life in care now, that’s half my life away from the only people I’ve ever truly needed in my life.

Through everything I’ve faced the last nine years it’s been so much harder to fight because I’ve fought it alone.

Through my darkest moments I’ve had to reach out into the dark and instead of finding the hands of those I love most I’ve found the harsh cold air of an empty room and closed doors. I’d honestly give my last breath just to spend even one day with my brothers and sisters all together.

I hope one day we can all be a part of each others’ lives again, that one year, one Christmas, I’ll be able to hold them each in my arms and tell them of all the things we’ve missed growing up apart. I hope that one day I’ll reach into that darkness and find all four of their hands waiting, ready to hold my hand again and I hope that when that day comes they’ll be able to be proud of the person I have become.

This is an edited version of Helen's story. The full version can be found here.