When my sister Sophia was born, I became a Mum. I was three and a half. It wasn’t a choice, my Mum had her own issues to deal with and so, I stepped up to the plate.
I loved my wee sister so much; she was my entire world. I had so much responsibility, worrying about my Mum and what we would eat, that, caring for her was a distraction. I didn’t have time to worry about myself, I just had to make sure my sister and my Mum were okay. The trouble is a three-and-a-half-year-old doesn’t know how to be a Mum. As a result of this, we were taken into care.
At first, Sophia and I were together. We were taken to live with my Gran. She was already struggling though, and we soon found ourselves in foster care. I remember being confused and worried. At least I had Sophia, I told myself.
I was with Sophia through several foster placements before ultimately, a decision was taken that I or Sophia had no say in. We were separated.
I was initially moved to a foster family, at the top of a hill, a few streets from where I’d previously lived. I thought that maybe I would still get to spend time with Sophia. I still didn’t know why we had been separated. I was six and a half.
The house I was moved to was still close to a playpark that Sophia and I had gone to when we both still lived together. I was excited whenever I was taken to the park because I thought that I would still get to see my sister. This never happened. I asked and I asked until eventually I was told, I wasn’t allowed to go to the park if Sophia was there. I was so upset. I used to look out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of her, if even just to remember what she looked like. Occasionally I did see her, and I remember being so filled with jealousy when her foster sister was at the park with her. I watched my sister forget about me right in front of my eyes. I felt like I had lost a sister and my role as a Mum. Most importantly though, I was her sister and they had taken that away from me.
I was then moved to another two homes before I found the place I would live until adulthood. It was a children’s home called Longcroft. It became a home to me, but there was always something missing.
Shortly after I moved there, my sister was adopted. The laws around adoption didn’t include my thoughts or feelings and so I wouldn’t see Sophia for another twelve years. I was eight years old.
What I went through for the next 12 years can only be described as a grieving process. In the beginning, I blamed myself that I wasn’t allowed to see her ever again because of her adoption. I believed it was my fault that she was in care in the first place because I was a “bad Mum”.
Sometimes all I would talk about was Sophia, to keep her memory alive. So that I wouldn’t forget. And other times I couldn’t talk about her at all because it was just too painful. Eventually, I forgot what her voice sounded like. I forgot what her hugs felt like. I forgot what it felt like to be a big sister.
I didn’t forget her birthday though. Every year, I wrote cards, wishing her a happy birthday and counting down the days until I could see her again. I wrote Christmas cards too. Sometimes I even wrote “I miss you” cards. I didn’t just miss her on birthday’s, I missed her all the time. Due to the adoption laws, I wasn’t allowed to send her these cards. I wrote them anyway, I thought that maybe I could show her one day that I hadn’t forgot about her.
This is what the care system, made up of adults making decisions without properly listening, has done to me. Sadly, I’m not the only one. Statistics from Strathclyde University estimate 70% of brothers and sisters in care are separated.
Over the years, I’ve had different people try to justify it to me. I’ve been told by these professionals that because I was looking after my sister, that it was good for me to be taken away. I didn’t have to be her Mother anymore and I could have my childhood back. That never happened. I spent my childhood grieving someone who was alive. My childhood was dead and buried, I didn’t need to lose my sister as well.
Ironically, some of these conversations have happened at conferences on being “trauma informed” and understanding “ACEs”. These, the same people who made the decision for me to be separated from my sister, who make decisions today, for people to be separated. I would ask them, how trauma informed is it, separating brothers and sisters? How understanding of adverse childhood experience’s is it, to compound trauma when you can make decisions that don’t?
On the 4th of December 2016 I was reunited with my wee sister after 12 years apart. Now I get to hear her voice, hug her and finally be her big sister again. I can also give her twelve years of birthday cards.
I now have the happy ending I dreamed of. The devastating thing is that I’ll be 31 before I have those years back. Far too many people are going through what I have, right now. The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry are even looking at it as emotional abuse from living memory until December 2014. I know that brother and sister separation extends beyond 2014.
Some don’t even have that hope of being reunited to hold onto, like I did, because their siblings are no longer alive. This isn’t acceptable. Priority needs to stop being put on parental contact over sibling contact and decision makers need to start listening to Care Experienced people and acting. It isn’t about a well-meaning policy; it’s about preventing the abusive practice of separating brothers and sisters.
Listen to us, do the right thing. That’s all we want. And then together, we can change this.
You can hear Theighan and her sister, Sophia, on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm Tuesday 14th January.