Together or apart?

Many children are part of complex family structures, with step-siblings and half-siblings living with them or elsewhere.

This is particularly true for looked after children: approximately 85% of them have at least one sibling; between half and two-thirds are looked after with at least one sibling. It is therefore hardly surprising that children who are part of sibling groups represent over 56% of referrals to Be My Parent: in this issue of the newspaper, there are over 40 groups of siblings, all needing a new permanent family.


Studies show that placing siblings together tends to work out well, with lower levels of problems occurring with the children. For older children, being placed with brothers and sisters is likely to be more successful than being placed on their own. However, it is sometimes decided that groups of siblings are better off placed separately, or broken into smaller groups.

The decision as to whether or not to separate a sibling group on a permanent basis is a very important one. It will have lifelong implications for all the children involved.

Making the right choice

Three key factors are considered when looking at making the best possible choice for a child who is part of a group of siblings: the individual needs of this particular child; his or her wishes for the future; and the children’s relationships with each other in the group of siblings.

It is important to recognise that, despite their close relationships, siblings are different from one another in personality: the needs of each individual child in the areas of health, education, emotional and behavioural development, identity, etc, will be considered. Children will also be asked whether they want to live with each of their siblings.

Finally, social workers will look at how much warmth, conflict or rivalry exists between the children. They will also consider the group dynamics amongst them: for instance, does one child tend to be excluded or scapegoated by his or her brothers and sisters?

When apart is best

Sometimes, the conclusion will be that it is in a child’s best interest to be placed on his or her own. It will usually be easier to place younger children without their older siblings, but this needs to be balanced against what they will lose by not growing up with them. The decision to separate them is not taken lightly and often only after a certain period of time if no family can be found for the children together.

A very common reason for placing brothers and sisters separately is when one is seen as having complex needs: these could relate to their behaviour, their need for individual attention, and the demands which they are likely to make on their new family.

Keeping the contact

Even if it is decided to separate a group of siblings, some level of contact will usually be arranged between the children. This can take the form of time spent together, or contact by phone, or through exchange of birthday cards, holiday postcards, letters or emails. Videos can also be a helpful way of keeping memories alive.

Preparing for siblings

When considering adopting a group of siblings families could find it useful to look at their own experience of siblings: what are their expectations of how brothers and sisters relate to each other? Are they prepared for a fair amount of inevitable sibling rivalry or conflict?

It is also important to be clear about the support package available. For some families, adoption of more than one child will be impossible without practical and financial help. Talking with other families who share the same experience can be very useful too.

A rewarding challenge

Brothers and sisters can be very supportive to each other. They can play really well together and keep each other entertained or occupied. Siblings also have a shared history and can help each other remember and deal with their feelings about what happened at home.

Making the decision to adopt a group of brothers or sisters is never going to be easy, but it can be immensely rewarding. The biggest challenge may be finding the commitment to make it happen!

Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in July 2005.

Based on the BAAF books 'Together or Apart? Assessing brothers and sisters for permanent placement', by Jenifer Lord and Sarah Borthwick and 'We Are Family: Sibling relationships in placement and beyond', edited by Audrey Mullender.

This article is published with the kind permission of the people involved. You may download it for your own reference but if you wish to use it for any other purpose, please contact Be My Parent for authorisation: Be My Parent, BAAF, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS. Telephone: 020 7421 2666/5/4.

Last updated: 21 May 15

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