Tuesday, May 26, 2015


The big debate when children are taken into care is whether brothers and sisters should be kept together.

Or, at least, it should be the big debate.

Unfortunately, in my experience, it tends not to get debated much, maybe not even at all.

Local Authority social workers always seem to try to keep them together.

I've never heard of more than three sibings going into the same foster home, but I'll bet that's not the record high number. Someone once told me that five is the maximum number of foster children you can have under your roof; any more than that and you qualify as a Childrens Home and have to comply with Ofsted and even get an Ofsted visit.

To be fair the obvious reasons for keeping brothers and sisters together are...well...obvious. It doesn't take an expert to come up with them;

1. The children will be frightened and shy going into Care. Having their brothers and sisters around will reduce the strageness.
2. It's easier to find one home than to find two or three separate ones.
3. Splitting up siblings makes things such as social worker visits and transport to contact harder than they need to be.
4. Foster Carers will welcome the extra income.
5. The siblings will self-regulate each other, and play together rather than require full-time foster carer input.
6. Re-assembling the family after the period of Care will be easier.

So many good reasons. And yet.

I know a woman who fosters three brothers since they came into Care. She takes them to the same school I use.

They are aged 7, 9 and 10. 

You can tell they are brothers in Care, not just because their facial features are similar. They are all equally lightweight - yet look as if they could handle themselves in a scrap. They all look younger than their peers. They all have that startled, haunted expression you often see in young foster children.

They tend to stand alone in the playground. They look like they've given up on the world already.

The foster mum tries her socks off. She's a devout Christian so it takes some doing for her resolution to be taxed, but taxed it is.

When we first met she would often sidle up to me in the playground and swing the conversation round to whether it is ever justified if foster carers give up on a placement, and pull the plug. I always reminded her that if things get too much you have a responsibility to look at that option, because, as Blue Sky always remind us; 

'YOU, that is, the Foster Carer, and YOUR FAMILY are more important than anything'.

It's a fact. You can't foster properly if those two things are out of sorts.

While I'm on the subject I have to say that comparing fostering experiences with people who aren't with Blue Sky is very interesting. I have to say, hand on heart, that it usually comes across that the level of support they get isn't anywhere near as good. Carers are often that bit less well-informed, and seem to be lacking someone who is looking at their fostering from the carers point of view as well as the child's, which is what Blue Sky do. 

Hence this foster mum was always picking my brains for advice. Advice and support; she wanted the youngest brother to be placed elsewhere, away from the two older brothers. The youngest had temper tantrums. She wanted re-assurance that her wishes didn't mean she was a bad foster mum. 

As the weeks turned into months she began to look more and more haggard.

She would describe how the youngest would fly off the handle, how sometimes only her husband could keep him on the straight and narrow and would take the lad for huge long walks out of the house and away from his brothers.

Keeping the three of them together was bringing the seven of them down (they had two teenage daughters of their own). 

But the local authority wouldn't agree, probably couldn't see what was going on.

What was going on was probably something like this: the three boys were engaging in the same behaviours they had entrenched in their real home. Being together they each triggered the others' nightmares of whatever happened in their old home, which no-one but they knew about (foster children can be closed books). If there had been cruelty directed towards them by their parents the older brothers may have used their parents as a blueprint for how to behave towards their youngest brother. Bullying and tormenting weaker and vulnerable family members is all they might know and under the pressure of being put in a new home they behaved the way they were treated.

Whatever the cause, it wasn't working. It sounded from what I heard that the youngest was developing mental health issues.

Then one day, the foster mum comes up to me in the playground with a tiny smile.

She's been granted 3 weeks respite. It's going to work like this; a super-carer is going to move into her home and look after the three boys. Her daughters are going to stay with friends. She and her hubby are going away. To India. Brilliant.

I saw the super-carer in the playground a few times, and she was very professional. She would carry a soft football to give the boys something to do while whoever came out of school first waited for the others. This is a small trick but it spoke volumes about someone who gets children. I watched her kick the ball a few times and she really joined in, enjoying the kids company, not bothering with the nattering parents, she was doing her job.

A few weeks after the mum returned from India she told me the youngest was being placed elsewhere.

A month later she starts turning up looking full of the joys of fostering. The two older boys are doing really well; they've finally integrated into the family and they now see themselves as a family unit of six, instead of two struggling family units of four and three. The youngest brother, she gets updates, is making good progress in his new placement. Better than if he was still with his brothers.

I have an experience of my own which supports the same conclusion, namely that keeping siblings together is something that should be either the last resort or a decision based on careful consideration of all the options.

The foster mum, by the way, had an indifferent time in India, I could tell because she said her husband told her he coudn't wait to get home and have a 'proper' curry.


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