I’ve been pondering this week about an issue that seems to come up more and more. Obviously, this whole article is prefaced by the caveat that children are better off with their birth family or family members if at all possible, even if that means a lot of support going in, so the issue arises in cases where the Court is being presented with a plan by the Local Authority that a sibling group can’t go home to the birth family or extended family.
It is the vexed question of separation of siblings – how far can anyone predict whether the future desired placements will materialise, does there ever come a point at which the desired outcome of keeping a sibling group together actually becomes harmful (i.e the trade-off between them being together versus them not having stable, lasting placements but running the risk of placement breakdowns), and to what extent is the detail of the care planning for a sibling group within the control of the Court, and what happens if the Court don’t want to let go of the reins because they doubt that what has been promised will be delivered?. I’m probably going to do a post about the official solution to the “starred care plans” issue, and whether that official solution actually works in practice (hint, since the introduction of the IRO referring to CAFCASS, CAFCASS making an application system has been in place, CAFCASS have had 8 such requests, and issued on none of them)
But one thing kept coming to my mind, and it is that children in a sibling group of three are the most difficult in this argument. A single child, siblings don’t arise. Two children – you generally want to keep them together (although if there’s a big age difference, that can be tricky) and you stand a good chance of doing so. Four children, it is generally accepted that you’re unlikely to be able to keep them together and although you may try to find such a placement, the consensus is that it would be a beautiful and pleasant surprise if you managed it, but not something you’d be condemned for if you couldn’t. Five and over, and it is accepted that the siblings would have to be split and the debate is about how to do this.
When you have a group of three, however, there remains a disconnect between what people hope and expect (you should be able to keep these siblings together, and you must find them a placement together, because splitting them would be terrible) and what the reality of carers searching for sibling groups of three actually are. Even assuming your sibling group of three has no particular quirky features, no unusual cultural issues, not a high level of post placement contact being planned, they have no significant behavioural problems (all of which assumptions are not necessarily the reality), the carers in the available pool who are looking for sibling groups of three are very limited.
A figure I saw this week suggested that currently for sibling groups of three or more, there are far, far, far more sibling groups looking for carers than there are carers looking for sibling groups. [I was going to give the figures, but had an attack of unease about doing so - but if you're imagining that there are five sibling groups for every one carer looking for a sibling group, you're way, way overestimating the number of carers]
That doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t try, or shouldn’t try really really hard, or that for any one of those individual sibling groups that not being placed together is anything other than a tragedy (having already given my caveat that this arises only if they CAN’T go home or to extended family), but it strikes me that no matter how hard one tries, no matter how fervently every professional involved scours the potential placements, not all of the sibling groups who are competing for a much, much smaller pool of carers are going to find placements together.
Even if we tripled the number of carers who want sibling groups; by some magical recruitment process, or as Gove is suggesting by dramatically reducing standards/the exhaustive bureacratic and draining process (depending on where you stand), still the vast majority of those sibling groups of three waiting to be placed together (who all professionals have determined, really really need to be together if at all possible) are going to be let down. And are we letting them down further by spending months of such a critical period in the children’s lives searching for something that has a high probability can’t be delivered?
I don’t know what the solution is. Long-term, taking action to either support families, to prop up and improve placements within the family, to get the treatment that parents who have been through the care system process badly need, or earlier intervention on the first child, so that we don’t get three children needing to be removed, with a view to massively reducing the need for large sibling groups to come before the Court. A whole different approach with foster carers – the concurrency model rolled out across the board, so that more often than not, the people fostering the children during the proceedings do so with an open mind that they would offer them a home for life, if needed? I don’t know what you would need to offer, or seek in recruitment to make concurrency foster placements the norm rather than an exception.
But we are working in a reactive system. What Government is ever going to throw millions of pounds of public money in helping parents who have heroin addictions or alcohol problems, and stand firm in front of the criticism that would come from the Daily Mail about that policy? Even if those millions would save that tenfold over time, and greatly reduce the human tragedy that ever single set of care proceedings inevitably is, no matter how well handled they are?