Most people have probably had little interaction with the UK foster-care system. Many might know a family who foster or seen an advert on TV, and we’re all outraged when children who have been abused, such as Baby P in 2007, are splashed across the news, exclaiming ‘Why didn’t the social services do more? Why wasn’t that child taken into care?’ I am perhaps no different, yet at the request of director Tommo Fowler I began researching such issues for my ensuing role as Helen in Orphans, written by Dennis Kelly. Suddenly I was forced to come face to face with the themes that underpin the play and define the lives of the 47,200 children who are fostered in the UK.
Orphans begins as married couple Helen and Danny are having dinner, suddenly Helen’s brother, Liam, appears covered in blood claiming he found a man beaten up; drama ensues. As the title suggests, Helen and Liam are orphans and throughout the play there are references to their own jaded experience of the foster care system, indicative of how experiences of childhood come back to confront us with dramatic consequences. Helen is receptive to the potential love of a new foster family, yet is continually brought down by Danny forcing them to move due to his on-going violent behaviour at school.
This scenario presents the question whether it is always within the best interests of individual children to be kept together when being fostered. Splitting up siblings initially sounds like a barbaric idea, particularly given that children who are fostered usually come from disrupted families already – surely keeping the remaining family together is the most important factor?
However the ministerial advisor on adoptions, Martin Narey, thinks otherwise. According to a recent article published in The Times, he stated that brothers and sisters should not be left drifting through the care system together if separating them would increase their chances of successful adoption. Moreover, the article revealed that two thirds of children in care have brothers and sisters also in the system and on average they wait a year longer than children without siblings to be adopted. If an older child has been parenting their siblings, separation may be required so that each can develop a strong attachment with new parents. For an adoptive family, the challenge of trying to make up for neglect or abuse will often be more manageable with just one child’. It may seem harsh to split up siblings when they have already come from families but maintaining direct contact with immediate family has often been detrimental to the individual child.
What should significantly be considered is that separating siblings does not mean that they are dramatically snatched away with no opportunity for contact between brothers and sisters again. When children are taken into care and fostered they will usually maintain some form of contact with the original parents, usually in a controlled environment and through the channels of the social services. This could well be the case with siblings.
Finally, as the logo of the UK foster system suggests ‘Every Child Matters’, it is important to see the children who come into care as individuals with unique needs, behaviours and desires. Therefore an ideal system would cater to the individual accordingly, perhaps in some cases this could be most successfully achieved through separating siblings.
However, I am not proposing that in all cases siblings should be split up – it is far from ideal and a sibling can be a point of support and familiarity when these children face disrupted and unstable lives. Yet perhaps we need to stop looking at families quite so romantically and see them for what they are in reality. When fostering began, many people must have thought that taking a child away from their birth parents would be cruel, yet through the public’s greater understanding of neglect and abuse, we know that in certain situations taking a child away from their parents is for the child’s best interests.
‘Us and them’ is a poignant theme within Kelly’s play: Helen claims that ‘these days that is exactly what the world comes down to. Who we know and who we don’t know’. Kelly’s play forces an audience to question if blood is really thicker than water, a theme which highlights the need to re-evaluate our own perception of what family really means to each individual.