Campaigners and workers supporting people affected by imprisonment in Scotland have demanded proper action and accurate data collection to help care-experienced young people whose siblings are imprisoned.

New research published today shows that those with experience of the care system are more likely to have a sibling held either in prison or secure care, but that a lack of consistent data-collection makes it impossible to address the full scale of the issue.

Researchers also found that for every young person sent to prison or held in secure care, an average of six siblings were impacted. The report goes on to state that this figure is likely to be an under-estimate as sibling relationships are not always recognised and recorded for children in the care system.

The new report has been produced by Families Outside, a national charity working with those affected by imprisonment in Scotland, and the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) through funding by The Promise Partnership.

Read more: The Promise - Scotland to no longer jail under 18s

The report finds that although care-experienced young people with a sibling in prison are likely to “experience many of the same barriers to rebuilding and maintaining relationships”, these are often “compounded” by their experience of, and interaction with, the care system.

It concludes that although the number of young people in prison and secure care in Scotland is small, those involved and affected are likely to be some of the most vulnerable in society, and that their experiences are “still not widely recognised or understood”.

Specific challenges include the physical distances and costs involved in travelling to where siblings are held, the “unnatural environment of the prison or secure accommodation”, and the extra emotional difficulties that these young people might face.

Read more: Care-experience in Scotland: sibling relationships can be vital

The report explains that these problems are particularly acute for care-experienced young people because sibling relationships are often the most significant in their lives. It adds that all children ‘have a right to their sibling relationships’, and that for care-experienced young people this may include ‘sibling-like’ relationships with cousins, step-siblings, or people with whom they have shared time in care placements.

Read more: We must end exclusions for care-experienced young people

Michael Grant, an expert consultant with lived experience of the issues involved, told The Herald that the report reveals “the essential and defining impact” of siblings relationships for this with experience of care.

“Sibling separation through care and custody is often overlooked. While there are estimates of the number of Scottish children impacted by parental imprisonment each year - around 20000-27000 - there are no estimates of the number of children and young people experiencing the imprisonment of a sibling. There is a need for more thorough, effective data collection to ensure sibling relationships are properly supported.”

“For some of us, our siblings are the most important and consistent support that we have, and loss of liberty shouldn't have to mean the loss of that relationship too. We need our institutions to step up and act as a scaffold of support for these relationships."

Professor Nancy Loucks, CEO of Families Outside, commented: “Imprisonment fractures families, and this unprecedented research shows that brothers and sisters already separated through care arrangements feel this even more acutely.

"The Promise underlined siblings as a crucial support network, but custody through prison or secure care can make access to these relationships exceptionally difficult. The Staying Connected project identified barriers but also solutions to this challenging issue.

“Extensive support for the importance of sibling relationships for care-experienced children and young people already exists in policy, legislation, and discourse. Now, proper action must follow.”

Fi McFarlane, Head of Public Affairs for The Promise Scotland, commented: “The Promise Scotland welcomes the launch of this important research from Staying Connected, which highlights that care-experienced children and young people impacted by sibling imprisonment are often overlooked. The Promise Scotland supports the call for more effective data collection and sharing so that sibling relationships are properly supported and protected.”

"The impact of this separation can be long-lasting. We know that lack of connections and isolation for young people can increase the risk of offending, and in Scotland that care-experienced individuals are often overrepresented in the wider criminal justice system. A quarter of men in prison reported being care-experienced, as well as almost a third of women (31%). This number is likely to be higher than reported, as many young people were not aware that they qualified as ‘care-experienced’. Stable loving relationships, and sibling relationships in particular, can be key in reducing young people’s risk of offending, and helping them to move forward."

Neil Hunter, Principal Reporter for Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) said: “What is clear from the findings of this research is that there is an ongoing need for all partners in the care and justice sectors to work effectively to ensure that siblings are identified, that they are informed of their right to maintain their relationships and that all possible steps are taken to ensure that siblings get to see and keep in touch with each other if they wish to, and it is safe to do so”.

Responding to the report, a Scottish Prison Service spokesperson said: “We fully understand the importance of positive family relationships, both to individuals in our care, and their loved ones in the community, particularly children and young people, and provide opportunities and support to develop this.

“While we do not record the care status of those not in our custody, we do work with community-based and prison-based social work teams to support those relationships, when we are aware of a family member’s care status. 

“Academics from the University of Glasgow have conducted research with a specific focus on care experienced young people and their relationships, and a programme to support relationships in a person-centre and trauma-informed way, is planned to begin in spring next year.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson added: “Keeping sisters and brothers together is fundamental to Keeping The Promise. That is why the Scottish Government convened the Siblings: Staying Together and Connected National Implementation Group to consider the challenges and opportunities in realising this collective aspiration.

“In July 2021, Scotland became the first part of the UK to embed new siblings’ rights into law. This legislation places a duty on local authorities to keep sisters and brothers in care together, where appropriate.

“The Scottish Government has issued guidance to local authorities to ensure that every looked after child can live with their brothers and sisters. This takes into account a number of areas for special attention – including siblings who are in prison or in a secure care setting.

“Where it is not suitable for sisters and brothers to live together, local authorities are required to put measures in place to help siblings stay in regular touch with each other and to nurture their relationships.”