As the Baby Boomer generation becomes older and faces life without their parents it is no surprise that greater attention has begun to focus on sibling relationships, offering as they do the opportunity for continuing “horizontal” relationships in aging families. There is now a National Siblings Day celebration in the USA (10 April).
A more serious aspect of this is the experience of siblings who have come into public care. Action for Children, a children’s charity, has found that in the year to March 2014 some 11,082 children from sibling groups were placed in local authority foster care in the UK. Of these, no fewer that 3,598 children (33 per cent of the total) had been separated from their siblings. In some parts of the UK this figure is as high as 45 per cent.
Indeed, the Shaw Report in 2007 into residential care in Scotland instanced the case of one former resident of a large children’s home for 16 years who only learned from reading her files many years later that she had a twin brother and three cousins, all of whom had stayed at the same home.
Many of today’s children in care will go on to be adopted, rather then remain in foster care, and they can grow up remaining in ignorance as to the well-being of the brother or sister; and this is despite changes in adoption law and practice that have made it more likely that adopted children will continue to have some kind of relationship with a brother or sister, if only by exchanges of letters and information.
Children adopted in the more secret and private climate of the 1960s and 1970s, however, will often never know that they have a brother or sister. The young birth mothers and birth fathers of that era often went on to have children in other relationships. There can be a number of permutations. Two siblings may both be adopted, whilst in other cases one infant might be adopted (perhaps a first child to a young unmarried mother) and subsequent children not.
For 30 years now, Birthlink has offered services designed for just such separated siblings. Our contact register (the Adoption Contact Register for Scotland), searches of public records and mediation can all come into play, starting with the information on the adopted person’s original birth certificate. This certificate identifies the birth mother and may contain details of a birth father. In such a case, this may mean that two family trees are investigated.
Birthlink is usually successful in establishing whether or not an adopted man or woman has other brothers or sisters. Take the case of “Davie” from Banffshire. Davie was born and adopted in England in 1944, during the Second World War. We found details of his mother and father, and then found later births of a sister (1945), a brother (1948) and a sister (1949). Because men’s names don’t change throughout their lives, and because their father had an uncommon last name, it proved fairly easy to find a brother in Essex. This led to Davie’s sisters. None of Davie’s three siblings knew about him, but their response to his first tentative approach was that they were “very glad that he had taken the risk after all this time; it’s never too late”. Davie’s response to us was simple: “Feels like I belong now”. The latest news is that one of his sisters has been to visit and he is making plans to meet up and holiday with his brother.
Not all sibling reunions are as successful as Davie’s. Some individuals have been taken aback to find out that they have an older brother or sister who was adopted whose existence was kept secret. Finding out that you are not the eldest can be upsetting. Birthlink’s work in re-uniting siblings involves many complex, rich and fascinating experiences. It is interesting that no-one uses the term half-brother or half-sister; perhaps in these instances there are no half-measures, only whole ones.
Another positive aspect is that the birth parents of many older people who have been adopted may be either dead or too incapacitated to help fill in all the missing pieces of the jigsaw. In such cases, finding a brother or a sister willing to share family albums and other memories can be a way to achieving a sense of roots and self. It was for Davie.
• Gary Clapton is a university lecturer in social work and a consultant with Birthlink www.birthlink.org.uk