Sir Martin Narey: Splitting up children is never the easy option

Sir Martin Narey, Government Advisor on Children, responds to Denise Robertson

Splitting up children is never the easy option
Splitting up children is never the easy option

"Denise Robertson doesn’t like the fact that I advise Michael Gove on children’s issues.

The reason seems to be that I‘ve suggested in the past – and still maintain – that sometimes brothers and sisters need to be separated when being adopted. She throws in the criticism that Barnardo’s - where I was chief executive until three years ago - emigrated children to Australia for adoption. But, as she admits, this regrettable practice stopped in 1967. I was 12 at the time.

Her argument about adoption and separating siblings – knockabout stuff as it may be – is too misleading and distorting to let go. She says that I have said brothers and sisters should be split up simply because there are too few adopters willing to take brothers and sisters together. That’s simply untrue.

Sibling relationships are hugely important in childhood. Although it dims during adolescence, the sibling bond becomes stronger again in later adult life. I was one of nine children, growing up in a somewhat crowded but deeply loving home in Middlesbrough. This provided the foundation for relationships with my brothers and sisters, which are very important to me as I approach 60. But that foundation was made in a loving and stable environment, not in a home where neglect or abuse dominated.

When neglected brothers and sisters have to be removed from their birth parents, the working assumption must be that they should be adopted together. Mostly they are and the determination to keep them together is always fuelled by good intentions. But insisting that siblings can never be separated means closing the mind to the possibility that, sadly, it is sometimes necessary.

Martin Narey
Martin Narey

The reality is that we’ve had evidence for 20 years that separating siblings who have been abused or neglected can be in their interests. Brothers and sisters may well have had to compete to survive, to get love or attention, even to be fed. Such trauma can tightly bind siblings together in baleful way. What is known as a “trauma bond” can mean an older, more damaged child can hobble the chances of a younger sibling growing up healthy and happy.

And we cannot ignore the reality that the potential adopters of siblings are simply not there. The last time I checked there were 104 families on the register of approved adopters willing to consider two or more siblings, but there were more than a thousand siblings waiting for adoption. Children need parents first and siblings second. And I have seen sibling relationships flourish despite their being adopted by different parents.

In coming to a view about this difficult issue, I have been humbled by correspondence from a small group to whom local authorities should listen much more: those who have already adopted siblings. With great courage a number have written to me to share their experiences. One, who has allowed me to quote her, movingly outlined her struggle over six years, helping two brothers recover from the harm caused by their shared neglect.

She ended her note poignantly, and with this: “I love them very much indeed and will do everything I can for them but the one thing that I really wanted to tell you is this — if I could make one change to everything that has happened, I would have separated my two boys."


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