Some siblings in the care system can grow up as virtual strangers. Siblings Together aims to reunite them in sympathetic surroundings. Camilla Pemberton reports
Delma Hughes was separated from her six siblings for 16 years while she was in care. As an adult she tried to build relationships with them. “Sibling relationships are meant to be some of the closest bonds possible but we were virtual strangers. It felt very odd,” she says.
Hughes came across many other care leavers in the same position: “We didn’t know what to do; it was rather pathetic. Without shared memories and experiences to talk about it’s difficult to find common ground on which to build a relationship.”
Hughes became concerned about what networks for separated siblings beyond care. A trained art therapist who has worked with looked-after children, and one of the founders of the Care Leavers’ Association, she set up Siblings Together two years ago. The not-for-profit organisation’s aim is to help siblings separated by care, and often living miles apart, to build relationships through shared experiences.
Siblings Together runs holiday camps and drama workshops where siblings, aged eight to 18, can enjoy a week together bonding through sports and other activities. There is a high staff to child ratio – about eight to every 12 to 15 – and all members have worked with children in care as social workers, care workers, psychologists, teachers or therapists.
“It’s easy for social workers to forget sibling relationships when the priority is safeguarding,” Hughes says. “Children in care are always measured in terms of risk so if siblings fight, which most will, it can seem a lot to manage. But it can be quite shocking where the line is drawn.”
In some cases, Hughes says, social workers forget where siblings are placed and contact can drift or be lost entirely. “We’ve had siblings on our camps who haven’t seen each other for years because of this. It’s so important these relationships are recognised and allowed to develop through regular, positive contact.”
Since their first holiday camp in 2008, Hughes and her team have run several siblings camps around the country with help from children’s charities and organisations. They are busy preparing for two camps in Pembrokeshire this month and earlier this year the group ran a drama workshop with London’s Young Vic theatre.
Although she says it has been like “building a sandcastle in the wind”, Hughes has managed to build a strong network of support. One of this month’s camps was funded entirely by a donation from the Angus Lawson Memorial Fund, while The Dandelion Trust is providing a house with 55 acres of land as the venue for both. Staff from the Prince’s Trust will be on site every day to supervise activities, from rock climbing and mountaineering to boat trips, pony trekking and painting.
Each child’s place costs £350. Councils that can pay for places do, but places are free if necessary. Almost all staff members are volunteers and places are funded through fundraising and donations. “All our funds go on making sure kids who want to can come on our camps,” Hughes says.
Unsurprisingly, the camps have long waiting lists. Social workers must carefully consider whether children are eligible for a place and help prepare them for the experience, Hughes says. “We get referrals from social workers, with details of siblings’ background and behaviour, a month before the camp so we can decide whether a place is suitable or not. We can’t manage violent or overly sexualised behaviour, for example.”
Hughes wants to set up more camps in different parts of the country and is meeting councils to share the learning. “Our camps make a difference to children. You see them bond over experiences they’ll remember forever; you see them learn to be protective and proud of each other and you know you’ve helped that relationship. Sibling work should be compulsory in social care, but too often it’s completely overlooked.”
Alex and his five siblings never saw each other for more than a couple of hours every six months until one of their social workers heard about Siblings Together. Contact was normally initiated by their mother, but she frequently cancelled at the last minute. When they did meet it was in whichever room was free at one of their local children’s centres, or at a local McDonald’s.
Spending a week “throwing themselves into games and new activities” provided shared experiences and new interests the siblings could discover together. They were able to learn about each other in a relaxed environment and, when they were returned, asked their social workers to help them attend every camp.
Their social workers also made contact and met the Siblings Together team which Alex says helped everyone to recognise the importance of regular, healthy contact. Alex and his siblings have now all left care and still see each other.
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This article is published in the 12 August 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Restoring sibling bonds”