As Volunteers Week begins, Michael Alexander visits a unique Scottish charity in north Fife which is trying to prevent siblings who are put into care from becoming estranged.
“Mummy mummy, can we go and plant some seeds? I want to see them grow again!”
Six-year-old Michelle (not her real name) seems like any other happy-go-lucky child with boundless energy as she runs around the Fife farmyard with her little watering can.
But the girl’s grandmother Hilda (name also changed) has tears in her eyes as she reveals that the ‘mummy’ comments are actually directed at her.
The youngster was just eight-weeks-old when her real mum – Hilda’s daughter – died.
The girl was put into care when her father was unable to cope. And the child’s trauma intensified when the social work system sent her to stay with several foster carers, all before the age of two.
Now, however, thanks to the ground breaking work of North East Fife-based charity STAR (Siblings Together and Reunited), the girl is enjoying supervised contact with her estranged father three times per year.
And the charity is also providing a means to help her grandmother cope, not only with the loss of her own daughter, but also to adjust to her new-found role as the girl’s full-time carer.
The primary aim of STAR, which was set up in 2012, is to provide the opportunity for regular, quality, supervised sibling contact for brothers and sisters who are separated in the care system or through adoption.
Run from its unique tranquil farmland setting on the south bank of the River Tay near Newburgh, it provides opportunities for siblings to foster emotional bonds and overcome the trauma of separation from parents and siblings whether it be by growing fruit together, listening to stories in a special wigwam, playing in the forest or on the beach, or helping care for the charity’s animals.
Hilda says Michelle has come on “leaps and bounds” since her regular, structured visits to STAR.
But from bulimic six-year-olds to traumatised teens, she says some of the dozens of other children attending regularly have even greater needs – and some of the back stories are heart breaking.
“Sometimes when you visit here all you hear is screaming,“ reveals Hilda, now a STAR volunteer herself who, as a mother of eight and grandmother of 26, didn’t expect to find herself acting as a full-time parent for her granddaughter at the age of 63.
“The children, who’ve all suffered emotional trauma through separation from their families, can’t get their feelings out. They can’t say the words. And some of them will shy away from group things. Their trauma is individual.
“But thanks to this place, with its calming environment, they find a little bit of peace and harmony. Even if the parents or siblings have nothing to say to each other when they come together, there’s plenty for them to do together.”
Karen Morrison, 42, a mother-of-two grown-up boys, was inspired to set up STAR – the first charity of its kind in Scotland – after her experiences of fostering children in Fife.
The former Dundee insurance company worker, who grew up in Kingskettle and studied at Cupar’s Bell Baxter High School, was shocked when she realised how siblings, already traumatised from being put into care, were becoming estranged from each other through separate foster placements.
She says it’s been a “difficult journey” to get this far. Backed by a team of dedicated volunteers, the charity had to be accredited and it costs £30,000 per year to run.
But now that it’s up and running and with social work referrals mainly from Fife and Perth, she would like to see STAR become an earlier fixture of looked after children’s care plans. And she would particularly like to see more volunteers and referrals from Dundee.
“There are currently around 16,000 children in care in Scotland and more than half of those children will have siblings who do not live with them,“ says Karen, giving The Courier a tour of the East Flisk farm premises.
“Regular quality contact between separated brothers and sisters does not always happen. For some there is no contact at all.
“Yet our relationships with our brothers and sisters are emotionally powerful and critically important. They are often the most important and longest lasting of our lives.
“Many children are leaving the care system feeling angry, abandoned, hopeless, guilty, alone and sad and are more likely to have problems with crime, drugs and mental health than their peers. Around one third of them are likely to not be in education, employment or training and currently 40% of prisoners under the age of 21 were in care as children. A quarter of young women leaving care will be pregnant or already mothers.
“Many in the care system say to us that the only way they were able to get through it was because they had each other. There is a far higher chance of children leaving the care system and doing well if they had the support of each other. Together they got through hard times before and they could do it again.
“Success for STAR is noting and witnessing the positive changes in relationships and the happier, healthier, more confident, more capable, more inspired individuals that are emerging.”
- Volunteers Week runs from June 1. Volunteers are being sought from all over, but Karen would specifically like to hear from more volunteers in Dundee. To find out more email Karen Morrison via Karen@star.cx