Overcoming Barriers to Keeping Siblings Together

A few expert opinions for foster care case reviewers to consider:

“There is evidence that the presence of siblings minimizes the trauma of parental separations or losses. A twelve-month-old child spends nearly as much time interacting with older siblings as with the mother. Siblings may become transitional objects for one another during a placement. This is particularly important with very young children….Separating siblings can make it more difficult to children to deal with separation and loss, begin a healing process, make attachments, and develop a healthy self-image….Attachments are particularly strong between the caregiver child and the younger siblings. Separation of them may lead to lifelong grief.” Vera Fahlberg, A Child’s Journey Through Placement.

“As adoption records are becoming more accessible, social workers are finding that requests for information about siblings outnumber the requests for information about biological parents.” – CWLA

“The relationships people share with siblings are often the longest-lasting they will ever have. Siblings are there from the beginning, and they are often still around after parents, and even spouses and children are gone.” – American Demographics and Consumer Trends

In the maze of permanency planning issues, the sibling connection may be lost. Add sibling issues to your list of questions. Look for sibling connections in your case material. Note sibling relationships and type of contact in your findings and recommend more sibling connections when you believe they are absent or infrequent.

Keep in mind that one day state intervention in the lives of children you review will end. It is always heart rending for me when I hear of cases of young adults, abruptly separated from the system at age 18, sometimes because adoptions have failed, sometimes because adoption never happened, where, because of actions years earlier, the youth does not know where siblings reside and is left devoid of any family connections.

I firmly believe that whatever the parents may have done to a child, his or her siblings are only rarely a part of the problem, and state intervention in an abusive/neglectful family ought not destroy sibling ties and relationships. Because of my belief that bonding and attachment is a primary consideration in all placement decisions, I would normally be unable to advocate for the disruption of a strong bond between a child and foster family simply to reunify siblings…but I would consider such an action if the foster or adoptive parents are insensitive to sibling contact and espouse a belief that the child placed in their home is best off not being reminded of his biological family through contact with siblings. Although each case must be evaluated on its own set of circumstances, I believe the following situations might require a planned sibling split:

The foster family is willing to adopt some, but not all siblings. This is probably one of the most difficult situations in terms of decision making. A general rule of thumb, utilized by the most experienced adoption workers, is to consider bonding to a foster family first and sibling reunification second. The age of the child and the amount of time spent with a particular foster family are the most significant variables. Children placed as infants bond in a critical way to their foster parents and nothing should take precedence over preserving this bond. Most bonding experts will indicate than an infant should be moved prior to six months or not at all. For older children, strong consideration should be given to bonding to a foster family, but a case by case decision needs to be made regarding their bond to the family, versus the need to reunite them with siblings.

A situation sometimes tends to arise than an inexperienced adoptive family agrees to take all the siblings who have been residing successfully in their respective foster homes, without realizing the challenges they will face. At least twice in the part year, Foster Care Review Boards have observed the total dissolution of an adoptive placement which was designed to reunite all siblings in one home. In each case the dissolution occurred due to the adoptive parents’ (and worker’s) naiveté regarding how difficult it is for an inexperienced family to suddenly take on a large sibling group.

Predatory sexual abuse by a sibling. However, care should be taken so that siblings are not separated just because they act our sexually with each other. If their behavior is not modified through intensive work by both foster parents, therapists and workers, they will simply act out sexually with other children in other situations.

Extreme dislike of one sibling so their being together is dangerous. Most, if not all, siblings fight and this behavior is usually very difficult for parents to deal with; however, learning to get along is a basic concept which families must teach. Too often, foster parents are not given adequate support to help them deal with dueling siblings, and the easier, “split them up” path is chosen.

Practical considerations: there is no one home which can accommodate the large sibling group. Reality is that very few adoptive or foster families can accommodate four or more additional children all at one time.

When siblings must be split, the decision-making process ought to include asking the children themselves which siblings should be combines. Often, as Vera Fahlberg indicated above, it is devastating for the “Parental” child to be placed away from the youngest siblings for whom s/he had the most responsibility. We make the logical but insensitive decision that the “parental” child should be placed separately from all his/her siblings to give him/her a chance to be a child. A few moments of truly emphatic consideration for the parental child should correct this notion. It is one of those theories that sounds better on paper than works in reality. Imagine yourself, at 6 or 7, being torn away from young infants and toddlers for whom you were primarily responsible. The grief along in such a move would preclude “a happy ever after ending” as you wondered about and grieved for those younger brothers and sisters.

Source: by Linda Glover from “Connections,” Michigan Foster Care Program Review Board, Reprinted with permission.

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