What's a Sibling?
When families break down, relationships become complex and complicated. Sibling relationships might include biological siblings who were relinquished or removed at birth, half-siblings, step-siblings or current/former foster siblings. Not all couples are married, so a sibling could also include: "Mom's ex-boyfriend's daughter."
Importance of Sibling Relationships
Regardless of how complex these relationships might sound, or how tangled the vines on the family tree, it is important to recognize the love and connection that might exist between siblings.
In abusive and/or neglectful families, it is common for siblings to nurture and protect one another. Teenagers who have assumed a protective role for younger siblings experience intense grief when they are not permitted to visit their younger siblings anymore.
Approximately 75 percent of children in foster care in the United States have a sibling who is also in care. Sadly, although social workers, foster and adoptive parents are aware of the importance of sibling connections, the multitude of their other responsibilities often makes this a low priority.
Across the nation, states vary in their policies regarding sibling placement of foster and adoptive children. In the child welfare system, siblings are often separated in order to increase their chances of adoption.
It can be difficult to find adoptive families who are willing to take in a sibling group. In many cases, only younger children are adopted, while teenagers remain in foster care.
Other reasons why sibling groups might not be placed together include:
1.) Size of the sibling group: It's more difficult to find foster families for large sibling groups. Also, agencies have regulations regarding how many children can be placed in a foster home.
2.) Willingness of kinship care providers: Relatives might only be willing to take in children to whom they are related by blood, and not half- or step-siblings.
3.) Special needs of some siblings: A foster/adoptive home might not provide the resources and support needed by one special needs member of a sibling group.
Some children might still remain in the custody of the biological parent. In that case, contact between siblings depends upon whether this was an open/closed adoption and whether visitation is allowed and facilitated between the biological parent and the adopted child.
Grief at the Loss of Siblings
When I was in foster care, I saw my brother only once. It was Easter morning, and I had saved up and bought him a basket of candy. I still remember watching his brown eyes widen at the goodies I had for him.
I was fourteen years old; he was eight. We played kickball in the backyard. He ran around the bases with an expression of intense concentration - and I didn't have the heart to tag him out with the ball.
In earlier years, while my mother was dying of cancer, I had become my brother's 'mother.' Undoubtedly, I wasn't the best surrogate mom in the world. My cooking abilities were sorely lacking... But I loved him, and I was always there for him. When he woke up crying in the night, fearful of nightmares and thunderstorms, I came into his room and read him stories.
Losing Joshua wasn't just like losing my brother - it was more like losing my child.
What Can We Do to Reunite Siblings?
In foster care, when siblings cannot be placed together, it is essential to facilitate regular contact.
Will this be difficult? Yes, certainly.
Is it worth it? Yes, most definitely.
How can it be done? Here are some methods:
1.) Social workers need to create a visitation plan, and involve the children and the adults at their current placements in its formation and evolution over time. This plan needs to include concrete, practical steps and an accountability component.
2.) When/if siblings are placed in separate foster homes, make sure those homes are in close proximity to one another. Visitation will be more likely to occur if their foster parents or social work doesn't have to drive several hours to facilitate.
3.) Facilitate frequent contact between siblings with letters, email, cards, and phone calls. Make the extra effort to buy stamps and mail the letters, especially for younger children.
4.) Arrange for joint respite care, and invest in camps like A Camp to Belong (information below).
Allow for Sibling Grief
If children are sad after visiting their siblings, please allow them to share and experience those feelings. Listen to them -- but don't use this as an excuse to end the sibling visitation because it's too hard on you afterward.
To learn more about a camp that reunites siblings, please visit: www.camptobelong.org
Child Welfare Information Gateway
2006 Bulletin for Professionals
Sibling Issues in Foster Care and Adoption