Siblings are often the longest lasting bonds in life. Sisters and brothers not only share experiences and a common history, but their bonds are equally important for their feeling of identity and belonging, as well as their self-esteem and social and behavioral development. All of this is supported by findings. In practice, however, children who are separated from their families and placed in alternative care are frequently separated from their siblings.
While the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children state that siblings should stay together in alternative care as long as it is in their best interest, there is no binding legislation in most countries to oblige authorities to ensure that siblings receive quality alternative care that allows them to stay together. Keeping siblings together when they are separated from their parents can help preserve family unity.
“The preservation of family ties, especially between brothers and sisters, should not even be questioned today,” says Benoit Van Keirsbilck, Director of Defence for Children International and member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. “We know that this link is fundamental for the development of the child, especially when life separates you from certain members of your family. This principle must therefore be reaffirmed very clearly in law and practice.”
The problem is that, in many cases, different types of alternative care placements have not been able to meet the need of siblings to stay together. This is either due to not having the ability to accommodate multiple children, alternative care placements being divided by age groups or, in some cases, by gender.
Success in advocating for new legal proposals
SOS Children’s Villages Belgium and SOS Children’s Villages The Netherlands have both recognized the need to address these challenges at multiple levels.
An expert note co-authored by SOS Children’s Villages Belgium with psychologists and lawyers in 2018 paved the way for a legislative proposal that is currently debated by lawmakers for adoption. The expert note is referenced in the proposed law.
SOS Children’s Villages Belgium conducted a survey with 100 young people with alternative care experience and found that seven in 10 grew up separated from one or more siblings. Using the data and their immediate experience witnessing the harmful impact of siblings being separated when placed in alternative care, SOS Children’s Village Belgium launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issue.
“Media subsequently picked up the data resulting from the survey which helped accelerate the public and political debate on the issue in Belgium,” said Jolien Potemans, National Advocacy and Communication Advisor at SOS Children’s Villages Belgium. Several of the young people spoke to the media themselves. The results of the media campaign supported SOS Children’s Villages Belgium’s advocacy efforts. “As a result of the media campaign, the regional Parliaments of the French and Flemish communities in Belgium also addressed the issue with ministries responsible for youth care, bringing it to the regional level. It helped make the issue of keeping siblings together a more permanent aspect of how youth care is organized.”
The campaign has included a comprehensive focus on developmental aspects, mental well-being, the right of protection of family life and child rights. A legal proposal to keep siblings who are separated from their parents together was made in November 2019. SOS Children’s Villages Belgium subsequently submitted two written advices to the members of the federal parliament on the law proposal in 2020 to influence the text and underline the importance of the proposal.
“Based on our written advices and those of other experts, the text has been amended several times and formulated more broadly considering different situations where siblings risk to be separated,” noted Jolien Potemans.
In their advocacy work towards decision makers, SOS Children’s Villages Belgium argued that practical obstacles are at odds with children’s rights, basing their positions on the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Similarly, civil society organizations in the Netherlands brought attention to the importance of keeping siblings together when separated from their parents. SOS Children’s Villages The Netherlands played a key role in the initiative focusing on three pillars: the program level, research and advocacy. Defense for Children International headed the advocacy work starting in 2019 which eventually led the Dutch Parliament to pass a motion to keep siblings together in out-of-home care.
“Our campaign on the issue around Siblings Day in 2020 reached nearly 900,000 people,” said Georgien Hakkert, Project Leader Simba Family Care at SOS Children’s Villages The Netherlands. Generally, all key political parties in the Netherlands were supportive of the motion, but not all saw the need to change the law and proposed solutions that would not require a change of law.
It will take some more time until the law can be changed in the Netherlands, possibly in 2023. In the meantime, the University of Amsterdam is doing further research on how siblings are affected to provide additional evidence.
“Coordination with SOS Children’s Villages Belgium has allowed us to share useful advice on good practices, be mutually supportive and achieve a bigger effort together,” explains Ms. Hakkert.
Mr. Van Keirsbilck of Defense for Children International says, “There is the crucial question of how to enforce such a principle even if it is written into the law. Who is going to act for the child whose rights are not fully respected when their legal representatives do not act in their interest? Who is going to inform the child of this right and ensure that he or she is heard in adequate conditions while his or her words are too often eluded?
“Without answers to these questions, the best intentions in the world will remain a dead letter. And there is nothing worse than a right that cannot be enforced in practice," adds Mr. Van Keirsbilck.
Challenging practical barriers: The Simba family houses
The Simba family houses run by SOS Children’s Villages Belgium and SOS Children’s Villages The Netherland are part of a care model that focuses specifically on the needs of siblings to be able to stay together.
The care model involves couples as caregivers of whom at least one has a professional pedagogy training. They live with and take care of the children as professional caregivers.
“The Simba family care method can help raise awareness on how legal provisions of keeping siblings together in out-of-home care can be realized and will also support the reintegration of the siblings with their family,” says Ms. Hakkert. “It is a pilot program to be assessed and possibly transferred to other places."
“It is a new type of alternative care model in Belgium,” explains Ms. Potemans. “The aim is to reintegrate the children with their families within one and a half years; we see increased interest from the government in this care model.”
In February, SOS Children’s Villages Belgium was invited to an expert hearing that included the participation and testimonies of people with alternative care experience. A final decision on details of the legal proposal in Belgium and the new law’s adoption is expected in the coming months.
The issue is complex as it involves many different family situations, including siblings who risk being separated due to divorce and not due to losing parental care. While additional experts are consulted, SOS Children’s Villages Belgium and The Netherlands continue their awareness raising and advocacy work building on a growing network.
“Siblings relationships are the longest bonds people have in their entire life. If we focus on keeping this connection in alternative care, we help maintain this important bond that they can rely on after they leave care,” concludes Ms. Hakkert.
UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.
Report on keeping siblings together by Defense for Children and SOS Children’s Villages The Netherlands available here in Dutch.
Keeping siblings together, SOS Children’s Villages Belgium (in Dutch).