Siblings separated through adoption

Siblings separated through adoption

Sue Austin writes for the Stand Up For Siblings website about her PhD research at the University of Bristol. Her research will explore the experiences of siblings who become separated through adoption from local authority care in the UK. This study explores the childhood experiences of adults who were adopted, to hear what it was like for them to grow up in a different family to their birth siblings, and what steps were taken to help them keep in touch.

What’s the issue?

Approximately 46,000 children have been adopted from care in the UK over the past ten years. Statistics regarding how many of these children are separated from their siblings are not recorded. But research suggests the majority of children who are adopted from care become separated from at least one birth sibling. Practice guidance acknowledges the significance of sibling relationship and the importance of helping sisters and brothers to keep in touch when they cannot live together. What isn’t known, is what this experience is like for those who live through this reality.

Why is it important?

In 1999 Audrey Mullender published her book: ‘We are family. Sibling relationships in placement and beyond’. This edited book provides several papers indicating the significance of sibling relationships. The opening paragraph, about John Lennon’s search for his sister, gives an emotive example of why this topic is important. For those who don’t know the story …

John Lennon was four years old when his baby sister was relinquished for adoption. John was 24 before he knew she existed. In 1964 he advertised in newspapers to try and find her, but she didn’t know she was adopted and didn’t know her original name. When she did find out about her birth family, she didn’t contact them while her adoptive mother was alive because she didn’t want to hurt her feelings. But then John died first, and he and his sister never met.

It is difficult not to be moved by the number of losses in this story. But it is encouraging to know that adoption law and practice in the UK has changed since this time.

Contemporary adoption practice and sibling contact

UK legislation emphasises the importance of keeping siblings in contact if they become separated in local authority care. Now, when children are adopted they have a Life Story Book, providing an account of their early life, and adoptive parents are encouraged to ensure a child knows their story.

A more contemporary account of siblings separated through adoption is given in the following anecdote*.

Working in a children’s adoption team, I visited a delightful young person called Poppy. I said “I like your t-shirt”, Poppy replied “I got it at the shop with Robbie”, there was a pause … Poppy asked, “When will I see Robbie again?”

Poppy was three years old and placed for adoption. Robbie was her 14-year-old brother, who was in long-term foster care. I thought about Poppy’s question. I don’t remember what I said at the time, but the honest answer was something like, ‘You probably won’t see Robbie until you’re 18. By that time Robbie will be 29 and it might take a while to find him.’

Poppy’s question stayed with me. I wondered how Poppy felt about not being with her brother anymore. I wondered how she would feel about growing up without him.

Why do we need this study?

There is evidence illustrating that sibling relationships are important for children who come into local authority care and particularly for children who are adopted. What isn’t known, is how post-adoption contact between siblings is experienced by those who live through the process, both in childhood and on into adult life. Safeguarding is always the priority in children’s social work practice, but it is rarely a child’s siblings who pose a significant risk.

Once an adoption order is granted, a child’s connection to their birth siblings is fundamentally changed. The local authority steps away and all parental responsibility transfers to a child’s adoptive parents. There is no formal review process for the adoption and contact plans. But reviewing contact plans may be necessary, as a child’s understanding of what it means to be adopted will change as they grow up. Preliminary research findings suggest some later-placed adopted children would value on-going social work support to review their sibling contact plans. The idea of reviewing contact plans, post-adoption has also been suggested by the judiciary and in a recent publication from the Nuffield Foundation.

Contact between siblings after adoption can be complex, particularly if some siblings remain in contact with their birth parents. However, complex does not mean impossible, but it is likely to mean thoughtful planning and management are required.

My PhD study aims to add to the knowledge base about siblings and adoption. Through the use of interviews with adults who were adopted and separated from their birth siblings, I hope to enable their voices to be heard.

How do I take part?

If you are aged 25 or over, were separated from a sibling through adoption from local authority care in the UK, after the age of three, and placed with your adoptive family after 1 April 1992, please contact for more information.  Participation involves an interview, online or over the phone.  Your voice will help in understanding more about the experiences of children who are adopted, what is done well and/or what could be improved.

About Sue Austin

As well as being a PhD student, I’m also a social worker within an adoption agency. While I have some experience of adoption within my wider family, I am not an adopted person or an adoptive parent. My interest in adoption developed when I trained as a social worker, in my forties, qualifying in 2010. From a personal perspective, I am a mother of two (now adult) siblings. I am also one of a sibling group of three.

*Names have been changed.


Meeting siblings’ rights to participate in Children’s Hearings

Meeting siblings’ rights to participate in Children’s Hearings

Janet Cormack, from Clan Childlaw writes about meeting siblings’ rights to participate in Children’s Hearings following the Supreme Court judgment in two Scottish cases…

In November 2019, the UK Supreme Court heard two Scottish cases, ABC v Principal Reporter and In the matter of XY, on the rights of siblings in the children’s hearing system. The two cases were had different circumstances, but the court heard them together because they both hinged on the same question: whether or not the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 and related subordinate legislation, if operated sensibly, give siblings of the child at the centre of the Hearing sufficient opportunity to take part in the decision-making process. When the Court handed down its judgment in June 2020, it ruled that, following adaptations to Children’s Hearing made since the initiation of these legal cases, as long as Hearings are operated in compliance with the guidance given by the Principal Reporter and Children’s Hearings Scotland, they will now fulfil what is required by the legal right to family life under article 8 ECHR in relation to siblings and other family members.

The judgment is the first time the highest UK court has deliberated over the right to family life for siblings. The judgment opens with: “Siblings can be as important as parents in the lives of those who have them. While parents have been likened to the doctors doing their ward rounds to see the bigger picture, siblings have been likened to the nurses: they are there every day”. The Court emphasised that “where a child is being cared for away from the family, what matters is the maintenance and development of the relationship between the siblings, whether through placing them together or through staying in regular contact with one another” (para 29).

The cases have helped increase recognition of the urgent need to better protect the sibling relationships of children in the care system and the right of brothers and sisters to be involved in decision-making. The judges “acknowledge that the initiation of these challenges has served to uncover a gap in the children’s hearings system which has had to be adapted to meet the requirements of article 8 in relation to siblings and other family members. There is now a clear recognition of the interest of both the child and the sibling in maintaining a sibling relationship through contact (or through placement if both are subject to CSOs) in most cases… There needs, in short, to be a bespoke enquiry about the child’s relationship with his or her siblings when the children’s hearing is addressing the possibility of making a CSO” (paragraph 52).

The Court said that to “make effective the rights of the sibling and other family members with a similar interest in maintaining contact with a child, it is necessary both that the relevant public authorities are aware of those interests and that the siblings and family members are informed of the nature of the proceedings concerning the child and of their rights in relation to the proceedings. Each person involved in the process – the Principal Reporter, the Children’s Panel members, the local authority, the social worker preparing a care plan, and the safeguarder – need to be aware of those interests if the system is to operate compatibly with the article 8 rights of siblings and other family members.

The new Children (Scotland) Act 2020, passed by the Scottish Parliament in August, paves the way for a new category of participation rights for siblings and other family members, so that they are able to participate in a children’s hearing when they are not a relevant person (see section 25 of the Act). They will have the right to be notified of the hearing; the right to provide a report or other document to the hearing; the right to be provided with specific documents; authorisation to attend the hearing; the right to be represented at the hearing; and the right of review of a CSO at a further children’s hearing after 3 months. The detail on the rights will be set out in children’s hearings rules, which will be consulted on. The Scottish Government said in Parliament that the changes will “allow the hearing to keep the relationship between the child and their siblings under close review if needed, and it will permit quick adjustments to be made to measures in the child’s legal order”. Furthermore the 2020 Act strengthens section 29A of the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 so that when deciding whether to include a direction regulating contact between the child and another person, Children’s Hearings will have an express duty to consider the relationships between the child and relevant persons, siblings and any other person with whom the child has resided and with whom the child has an ongoing relationship with the character of a relationship between siblings (see section 14 of the 2020 Act).

Until this new regime comes into force, the arrangements to be followed by Children’s Hearings are those the Supreme Court sets out in paragraphs 32-40 of the judgment. These are:

  • Notification and attendance at a Hearing

It is now the practice for notice of hearings to be given to the siblings of a child if they are sufficiently mature, for invitations to attend a hearing to be sent to a sibling and for the chairing member of the hearing to exercise her or his discretion to allow the sibling to attend the hearing.

Paragraph 9.2 of SCRA Practice Direction 3, as revised in March 2019, says that when arranging a Hearing, the Reporter should consider whether there is anyone other than the child and relevant persons whose attendance is likely to be necessary. The Reporter should invite anyone who has established family life and an ongoing relationship with the child, and sufficient age and maturity to participate in the Hearing, where the Hearing is likely to consider including a contact direction about them in a CSO for the first time or to vary a contact direction about them in a CSO, or the person has made clear that they want the Hearing to consider their contact with the child.

The chairing panel member can allow the person to attend “if their attendance is necessary for the proper consideration of the matter” (s78(2)(a) of Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011).

Paragraph 9.3 of SCRA Practice Direction 3 states that where it was not foreseen that the panel would be considering a contact measure or that a person was of sufficient age and maturity would be invited, the Reporter is directed to invite the Hearing to satisfy itself that it has their views in relation to contact, or if not, that they have been given an opportunity to give those views. If not, the panel can defer the decision to make sure that they are able to give their views directly or indirectly.

  • Panels must inform everyone at Hearing of substance of relevant papers

Siblings and others who are not relevant persons do not have access to papers, but the chair of the panel is required to inform every person present at the hearing of the substance of any relevant document (ss91, 119 and 138 of 2011 Act and rule 60(2)(a) of the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 (Rules of Procedure in Children’s Hearings) Rules 2013).

  • Decision-makers must have adequate information about family members and the history of their involvement or contact with the child and panels should consider how children’s sibling relationships can be maintained

Paragraph 8.26 of the Children’s Hearings Practice and Procedure Manual, updated in September 2019, states “Panel members should have information about a child’s relationships with their brothers and sisters and give careful consideration to how these relationships can be maintained and protected.” Para 8.27 lists the key considerations for the hearing as: identifying all the child’s brothers and sisters, including those who have had a similar role in the child’s life, such as children brought up in the same placement; the views of the children about their relationships and existing contact provisions; promoting face-to-face contact where possible; the practical and emotional capacity of carers to facilitate contact; how contact can be achieved in as relaxed and natural manner as possible.

  • Local authorities must assess a child in their care’s need for contact with siblings

The Supreme Court referred to local authorities’ duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of any child they are looking after (s17(1) of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995 Act), and to ascertain the views of any person whose views the local authority consider relevant before making a decision about the child (s17(3)), and the requirement in the Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009 to, when making assessments, obtain details of a child’s siblings and their contact with the child (regulations 3-4 and Schedule 1, paragraphs 7-8), resulting in a ‘child’s plan’ which must include arrangements for contact between the child and others (regulation 5 and Schedule 2, paragraph 7). 

  • The Principal Reporter can require a local authority to produce a report on the child, including information about his or her siblings

Under section 66(4) of the 2011 Act, the Principal Reporter, when investigating whether the child needs protection, guidance, treatment or control, can require the local authority to produce a report on the child, including information about his or her siblings. The Principal Reporter can then request further information once they have decided that a CSO is necessary. They can request a report from the implementation authority when arranging a hearing to review a CSO.

  • Hearings have a duty to consider including in a CSO a requirement for contact

Under section 29A of the 2011 Act, when making, varying or continuing a CSO in relation to a child, the children’s hearing must consider whether to include in a CSO a contact direction.

  • Relevant persons can share the views of the child’s siblings with the panel

Parents and the referred child can make representations on behalf of the wider family to protect their Article 8 interests (see the Supreme Court judgment in Principal Reporter v K, paragraph 68). Those who meet the test for relevant person status will have the right to be deemed a relevant person under s81(3) of the 2011 Act and the right to call for a review of a contact direction s126 of the 2011 Act and article 2 of the Children’s Hearings (Scotland) Act 2011 (Review of Contact Directions and Definition of Relevant Person) Order 2013.

  • Release of documents to assist hearing’s decision on CSO

Once grounds have been accepted, a Children’s Hearing can direct the release of documents under rule 61(1)(g) of the 2013 Rules where this is necessary to allow the hearing to decide whether to make a CSO.

The above information was written by Janet Cormack, Legal Policy Manager at Clan Childlaw, in November 2020 – for further information from Clan Childlaw, call 0808 129 0522 or email

Adoption week – siblings webinar – date for your diary

Adoption week – siblings webinar – date for your diary

To mark Adoption Week which will take place from 16 to 20 November, a webinar will be held at 7pm on Tuesday 17 November.

This webinar will focus on maintaining relationships between brothers and sisters either through adopting sibling groups and/or promoting and maintaining contact between siblings in different placements. Chaired by Kate Richardson, Manager of Scotland’s Adoption Register, with contributions from members of SUFS – Dr Chris Jones from the University of Strathclyde, Anne Begbie from LifeLong Links City of Edinburgh Council and Karen Morrison, founder of STAR – Siblings Reunited. This will be followed by an opportunity for Q&As and discussion.

You will be able to book tickets via Event Brite and more information will be available here soon. Watch this space for more information!

Impact of COVID-19 on STAR

Impact of COVID-19 on STAR

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that one critical project which brings siblings together, has had to close.

STAR, Siblings Reunited, has had to temporarily close its doors during lockdown.

Although restrictions are easing, the Fife-based charity is still waiting to fully reopen.

STAR brings brothers and sisters together for two hours once a month for some much needed quality time together.

Karen Morrison who runs the project said: “Lockdown has been tough. We had to completely close. We did look at providing some kind of online service, but what makes STAR so special and successful, is that we offer a unique experience for children and young people.”

STAR has everything from a woodland, to a beach and garden area. There’s also the STAR wigwam, an outdoor kitchen (and a mud kitchen!) as well as the Fairy Garden and Hobbit House.

The project also has a host of furry friends, which the children and young people love to pet, including horses, rabbits, guinea pigs and Murphy the Ram (who is a popular choice for selfies!)

Karen and her family have been kept busy keeping the facilities maintained during the pandemic. Tuesday is normally their maintenance day, where up to 40 volunteers descend on the site to help keep clean, plant, set up new projects etc. In addition, the Department of Work and Pensions also regularly provides up to 20 helpers on a Tuesday which is the day they don’t have any children or young people on site.

Karen said: “To go from all this amazing help every week, to just the family, was a real challenge. All the family had to muck in and help out to keep everything ticking over. Somehow we managed and the site looks great. We can’t wait to welcome everyone back again.”

Karen had hoped the project would be fully up and running now, but the new restrictions on two households makes this difficult, as there can be siblings from multiple placements, as well as the STAR supervisors who are always on hand.

She added: “We know children and young people are missing vital contact with their brothers and sisters during this time. They might arrive here anxious or worried, but then they seem to leave these worries at the car park and enjoy spending time with their siblings and trying out all the different activities. The animals in particular have a calming and therapeutic effect.”

Hallowe’en and Christmas are two of STAR’s busiest times, so Karen is hoping things will be back to normal by then, but she added: “We are still here and we are desperate to get back to normal, but we want everyone to be safe.”

To find out more about STAR visit their website. 

STAR receives 50 per cent of its funding from The Big Lottery. The remainder is sourced through fundraising activities, however, Coronavirus has had a significant impact on this. You can make a donation to the charity via their website.

Sibling rights and the law

Sibling rights and the law

Stand Up for Siblings are delighted that the law in Scotland was recently changed to specifically protect and support the siblings relationships of children in care, and also siblings experiencing court proceedings following family breakdown. These changes follow a long campaign by Stand Up for Siblings partners. You can read what these changes are on Clan Childlaw’s website here.

Coming soon – Adoption Week

Coming soon – Adoption Week

Stand Up for Siblings is proud to support Adoption Week which will take place from 16 to 20 November.  Adoption Week celebrates adoption in Scotland and one of the themes of this year’s campaign is sibling relationships. Adoption Week is funded by the Scottish Government and managed by two SUFS partners, AFA and AUK Scotland.

A range of activities are being planned to take place around Scotland for people interested in adopting and for adoptive families. The events include a live webinar – which will take place in partnership with SUFS – to discuss maintaining sibling relationships. The webinar will take place on Tuesday 17 November at 7pm. More information will be available shortly.

To find out more about Adoption Week, please visit the Adoption in Scotland website.


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