Fostered children are being separated from their brothers or sisters because of a shortage of suitable homes. In some cases, where their natural parents have died, this means they are taken away from the only family they have left, according to new research by the Fostering Network.
In the past two years, 34 per cent of foster families have looked after children whose brothers and sisters had been placed elsewhere, despite care plans stating they should stay together, the charity says. This equates to 17,000 foster families across Britain, in what is a national problem "affecting thousands of children", according to Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network. Most fostered children have experienced some form of trauma before coming into care, he said. "Being separated from brothers and sisters just adds to the difficulties they are facing, and makes it harder to settle into their new lives," he added.
Natasha Finlayson, chief executive at the Who Cares? Trust, a charity for children in care, described the figure, from a survey of more than 1,200 foster families, as "really shocking". She warned: "With the number of children in care and not enough places in foster care and children's homes, we are heading for a perfect storm."
Some 73 per cent of fostering services reported last year that it had become harder to keep brothers and sisters together over the past five years. The situation is set to worsen with reforms to the welfare system, as carers with two or more bedrooms for fostered children face losing housing benefit for these "unoccupied" rooms, and will have to apply to a discretionary fund for compensation.
New statistics to be published by the Fostering Network tomorrow are expected to show how shortages of foster carers are resulting in children being repeatedly moved from one place to another. An urgent appeal for Britons to become foster carers will be made tomorrow as part of Foster Care Fortnight.
The Children Act 1989 requires local authorities in England and Wales to place a child with their siblings "if reasonably practicable and consistent with their welfare". Similar legislation exists in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But more than half of children in care are believed to be separated from their siblings, according to campaigners.
Kevin Browne, 26, a charity worker from Paisley, Scotland, grew up without his four brothers and his sister. The family was split up after his mother, a single parent with alcohol problems, could no longer cope. The children were taken into care on Christmas Eve when he was three. Kevin woke up on Christmas Day to find himself in a children's home. By the time he was eight, he had only one brother with him in care. The family was never reunited. "In parts it's horrific; in other parts it's confusing, and with my brothers it's a continual journey to build up a relationship with them," he said. "I feel like a massive bond has been broken."
One foster mother, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "I look after two children. Their older sister lives somewhere else and they only see each other every couple of months, for half an hour at most. They are becoming like strangers."
In a statement, a Department for Education spokesman said: "The law is clear that siblings should be placed together with foster carers where possible. We are continuing to work with key partners to support local authorities to secure enough foster carers to meet children's needs."
Case study: 'People don't realise how important it is for siblings to be kept together'
Susie Morgan, 53, a foster carer from Leeds (her details have been changed), has seen, at first hand, the trauma of siblings separated...
"Toby, 10, came to me as an emergency placement on a Sunday night when his mother was admitted to hospital. A friend took his half-sister, and his half-brother went to other carers. That was more than seven years ago, and he's still with me.
"As time went by it got less and less likely that a foster family with the space or skills to look after all of them would ever be found. Eventually it was agreed Toby would stay with me permanently, without his siblings.
"He misses them dreadfully. A lot of people don't seem to realise how important it is for siblings to be kept together. Toby has a stable and permanent home here now. But if the local authority could have kept the children together it would have been a much better solution."
To be a foster parent, go to couldyoufoster.org.uk