Working with brothers and sisters in public law proceedings

07 October 2019

Dr Jan Macvarish and Professor Daniel MonkDr Jan Macvarish and Professor Daniel Monk

For people unfamiliar with the care system, it can be surprising to learn that children can be permanently separated from their brothers and sisters, whether through adoption or other types of placement and that this can lead to them losing touch entirely.

Although most of us understand that children are sometimes removed from their birth parents for good reasons, it is more difficult to grasp the grounds on which the permanent separation of brothers and sisters could be considered to be in their ‘best interests’, especially if they are also denied contact with one another.

Research has shown that:

  • Two thirds of children in care live apart from at least one of their biological brothers and sisters and two fifths are living apart from all of them (Jones and Henderson, 2017).
  • Only 37% of children placed for adoption were placed with siblings (Ivaldi, 2000).
  • After adoption, a child is more likely to have direct, face to face contact with brothers and sisters than with other birth relatives, but this is predominantly with siblings who have also been adopted (Neil, 2018).

For judges, lawyers, social workers and other practitioners involved in public law care proceedings, making decisions that will separate brothers and sisters is an unavoidable fact of working life, however, it would be wrong to assume that they get used to making them or make them lightly.

As part of our research project, ‘Siblings, Contact and the Law: An overlooked relationship?’, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we spent over a year exploring the legal and practical factors which shape the decisions made about child siblings in care and adoption proceedings. This included interviewing practitioners and young people to get their perspectives on the issues siblings may face. 

Many professionals told us of cases that had troubled them, in which the rationales provided for separation were concerning or where it had been particularly difficult to acknowledge the interests of all the children in a sibling group. A common theme was that older children in particular can have their wishes de-prioritised in the pursuit of a ‘permanent’ placement for their younger siblings. They also worried that contact between separated brothers and sisters would not be adequately supported once proceedings ended. Back in 2013, Lord Justice Ryder highlighted the problem when he said:

‘All too often adoption orders are made with all the best intentions for continuing sibling contact which are then thwarted for no particularly good reason.’
Re P-M (A Child) [2013] EWHC 1838, (at 35).

Our study explored how ‘together or apart’ decisions are made and uncovered the ‘assumptions’ which tend to underpin them. Key issues were:

  • How siblings are defined in legislation, by professionals and by children and young people.
  • How sibling relationships are assessed and the concepts used to do this.
  • How contact is decided in the event of separation.
  • How different placements (fostering, adoption, special guardianship) affect decisions about whether brother and sister contact is possible.
  • How the law is used (or not used) to enforce contact.

By ‘assumptions’, we mean, for example, the distinctions drawn between different types of sibling - full, half, step, foster - which tend to be formed into a hierarchy where some relationships are valued more highly than others. These distinctions may not square with children’s own views of who matters most to them. Other assumptions concern the expected consequences of allowing sibling contact - that it will deter prospective adopters or that it will undermine the stability of an adoption placement.

We have produced a Webinar and briefing for Research in Practice which will discuss these issues at length and set out how the law understands sibling relationships. Our study was the first of its kind in England and Wales but there is growing interest in researching and discussing the importance of brothers and sisters for children during and after care and adoption proceedings.

About the authors

Dr Jan Macvarish is an Associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. A sociologist her work focuses on the study of interpersonal relationships, parenting, family life, health, sex and intimacy.

Professor Daniel Monk is Professor of Law in the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London. His research has examined a wide variety of issues about children and parents’ rights in the contexts of education, inheritance and sexuality.



Related Research in Practice events

Brothers and sisters in public law proceedings: assessment, placement, permanence and contact – Webinar

12-1pm, 6 November, online: view details

Drawing on their Nuffield Foundation funded research on Siblings, contact and the law, Professor Daniel Monk and Dr Jan Macvarish have co-authored a Frontline Briefing, designed to support evidence-informed social work practice in the family court. In this Webinar the authors will introduce the resource and share ideas about how and where to use the materials.

Designed for: Frontline practitioners and team managers working in the family justice system.

Related resources

Beyond together or apart - Planning for, assessing and placing sibling groups

Siblings, Contact and the Law: An overlooked relationship?


Ivaldi G (2000) Surveying Adoption: A Comprehensive analysis of local authority adoptions 1998/1999. London: BAAF.

Jones C and Henderson G (2017) Supporting Sibling Relationships of Children in Permanent Fostering and Adoptive Families. Research Briefing 1. Strathclyde: University of Strathclyde

Neil E (2018) ‘Rethinking adoption and birth family contact: is there a role for the law?’. Family Law 1178-1182

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