Unjustifiable separation of siblings who wish to stay close to one another
What type of mother stops siblings seeing each other over the Christmas period, and prevents them giving gifts at Christmas?
The Nuffield Foundation in collaboration with Birkbeck University, published a report in November which makes recommendations for change in the family justice system to ensure that sibling relationships are maintained. Cafcass and the Family Justice Young People’s Board contributed to the report and the young people’s contributions have highlighted the need for change.
Assessing sibling relationships and futures with each other is a core task in contemporary social work with children and families. The starting point must be to ‘allow children to say who their brothers and sisters are’ (Argent, 2008). In other words, ‘who matters to the child?’. This reflects complex family structures in which half-siblings and foster-siblings can be as important for the individual child as their parents. And it is not just brothers and sisters. For an individual child, grandparents and other relatives may be crucial to their emotional and psychological well-being.
A sibling contact plan is just as important in court assessments as a parental capacity analysis and a placement support plan. Assessors and courts have to be careful not to talk casually about ‘sibling rivalry’, ‘the sibling bond’ or the ‘parentification’ of a brother or sister in relation to other siblings. It is best to observe and then describe feelings and behaviours than to use labels.
Brothers and sisters in family proceedings can experience profound separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is traditionally understood as a strong feeling a child has when a parent leaves them. But adults can feel intense separation anxiety too. Parents can feel exactly the same separation anxiety when they cannot see their children, or when they have to leave them for one reason or another. Grandparents can feel this about their children and their grandchildren. ‘I miss you’ is a simple statement for complex and powerful emotions. This means that when we assess our family, we have to understand and analyse a range of relationships and inter-relationships and to be clear how these will be affected by one proposal for change or another.