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Should Siblings be Split Up if it Speeds Adoption?

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Writing in The Times today Martin Narey, the ministerial adviser on adoption, continues his important campaign to increase the number of adoptions and ensure children are placed with adoptive parents as quickly as possible.

Martin rightly raises two important questions. Firstly, whether brothers and sisters waiting to be adopted should be separated if this helps to get them adopted, and placed with a family more quickly. Secondly, he questions whether birth parents who have abused or neglected their children should continue to have contact with them once these children have been adopted.

There are of course no easy answers to either question and Martin acknowledges this, but as a basic starting point the NSPCC believes that all children in the care of the state should equally be entitled to the best possible route to a permanent placement as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, sibling groups are more difficult to place and it can take a year longer to place sibling groups of three or more compared to a single child. There are many reasons for this: local authority policies and views of individual social workers; prospective adopters being less willing to take more than one child at a time; and practical issues such as cost and numbers of available bedrooms for example. Remaining in the care of the state is therefore all too often a real possibility for sibling groups who are not separated.

Whilst experiences of care are certainly improving, it is only right that the decision to separate siblings for adoption should never be taken lightly. High quality social work practice and sound professional judgement will always need to be at the heart of any decision to separate brothers and sisters. Individual social workers need to carefully assess each child, with effective supervision by their managers, and understand the strength of the bond the child has to their siblings. And they should also ask children about their views and take these into account before reaching a decision.

In some instances it will be right to separate siblings. For example, an older sibling may have a very negative or abusive relationship with a younger brother or sister that is seriously harmful. However, in most cases, the ideal situation would be to keep them together. We therefore need to develop ways of ensuring that separation is the last resort.

Where children may need to be separated all the prospective adoptive parents need to be fully committed to making the adoptions work both practically and emotionally. This includes a genuine willingness to prioritise regular contact between siblings and for the adoptive parents to be living within reasonable distance of each other.

In terms of contact with birth parents, we should always start with the impact on the child rather than the benefits to the birth parent - the safety and wellbeing of the child should always come first. Imagine being a child who is told they can never see or hear from their parents again. Despite the abuse or neglect they have suffered, many children will continue to have strong desire to remain in contact with their parents even if they have been successfully adopted.

Deciding contact arrangements between a child and their alleged or proven abuser will always present social workers and courts with a challenge, and much will depend on the age of the child and their relationship with their birth parents.

Martin Narey is right to expect greater contact, where appropriate, before a placement order is made given that most children return home to live with their parents and carers. In 2011, 39% of children in England who left care returned home to live with parents or relatives again. That's more than 10,000 children, making it the most common outcome for children leaving care.

In terms of contact between children and birth parents after adoption, we know that it can significantly improve outcomes for adopted children in later life. However, all too often it happens when it is not necessarily in the best interests of the child.

It does however remain challenging for adoptive parents: on the one hand they have a deep seated desire to protect their child from the harm caused by their birth parents, and on the other, they recognise the importance of helping their child to make sense of their identity and prepare them for possible relations with birth parents in later life.

Adoptive parents need effective support post-adoption to get this balance right, but we know that this is inconsistently provided. This means that adoptive parents are left on their own to manage contact issues and they can fall short.

The NSPCC welcomes the Government's commitment to improve post adoption support services and we would encourage a greater focus on support for managing contact and dealing with the emotional impact it can have on adoptive families.