Contact with their siblings is important for many children and young people in care and is widely recognised as beneficial to their happiness, wellbeing and personal growth. The Charter of Rights asserts that children and young people have the right to keep in contact with the people who help them feel good about themselves. The Families SA Practice Guideline for contact also recognises that sibling contact should be given a ‘high priority’.
Positive sibling relationships have the potential to improve resilience, provide support and contribute to the development of identity and belonging. Sibling contact can provide some familiarity and consistency when other things in a child’s life such as placements and contact with parents, may be unpredictable. While contact over the phone or via letter or email is positive, there is nothing like face- to-face contact with someone we care about. This is particularly true for young children, who interact mainly through play.
Children and young people who have experienced being in care have told us that sibling contact is important to them. One of the Office’s Youth Advisors said that face-to-face contact provides reassurance that siblings are there, they exist and they are real as opposed to being someone they only hear about. The Advisor also noted that it is important that young people’s lives are not just made up of ‘workers, mentors and friends’, but involves their biological family including their siblings. Another Advisor added‘ my mentor was like my family for four years [but] you need to know your family…for life after care’.
Some young people regard their carer or foster family as relatives and have the opportunity to experience sibling type relationships in their placement but many young people want a relationship with their biological siblings as well. One of our Youth Advisors reflected, ‘you never get rid of the thought of your family’.
Young people in residential care settings can feel particularly isolated when other residents in the unit or house are having regular contact with their siblings, while they are not.
There are difficulties in making sibling contact happen. Safety is a paramount consideration when facilitating sibling contact. Contact arrangements also should consider the ages, development and nature of sibling relationships. There are many practical challenges to facilitating sibling contact such as long distances between children, the lack of staff and resources to arrange and supervise the contact, managing children in different types of placements and accounting for the varying needs of the siblings.
The Youth Advisors provided us with this final advice about managing sibling contact:
- case managers should check in regularly with children and young people to find out their views and wishes about sibling contact because they can change. Some siblings want to see each other, others do not
- consistency is important to ensure arrangements do not change when workers change.
- young people should receive assistance with scheduling and organising contact regularly so they do not have to navigate the system alone.
- consider confidentiality – some siblings are not having contact and do not know where their sibling is living