Separation and loss are experiences all too familiar to adopted children. When that separation and loss involves siblings, as it often does for children moving from foster care to adoption, parents face the challenge of deciding whether to allow their child to maintain contact with his or her siblings. Some decide to continue the relationships, others choose not to. To determine what is best for their child and their family, parents need to consider why the siblings have been separated and what the long-term effects of separation might be.
A Growing Problem
“I will never forget the day I have to leave my younger brothers,” says Robert, age 35. He was separated from his brothers Andrew, 30, and William, 28, at the age of eight, shortly after the three were removed from their birth home and placed in foster care because of extreme abuse. “I remember walking in the front door of my foster home after school one afternoon to see a social worker sitting there. She told me that the agency had found a family who wanted me to live with them, and I would be going there right away,” Robert says. “The terror of that moment still haunts me. I said, ‘What about Andrew? What about William?’ I didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye that day. They were taking a nap. It wasn’t for weeks that I had one last chance to see them and then all contact was lost.
According to the 1996 National Adoption Information Clearinghouse report “The Sibling Bond: Its Importance in Foster Care and Adoptive Placement,” many children experience this heartbreaking separation from their siblings each year. Sixty-five to 85 percent of children entering the foster care system have at least on sibling; about 30 percent have four or more. These siblings are often separated because it is difficult to find families willing to take on a number of children. Current estimates indicate that 75 percent of sibling groups end up living apart after they enter foster care. For most of these children, the loss is traumatic. it is the beginning of the end for the only significant relationship they may have experienced.
After over 23 years of separation and no contact, Robert, Andrew, and William have been reunited. Andrew and William grew up together. Andrew had faint, vague recollections of Robert while growing up but never asked about him. William was too young to remember him and grew up without the knowledge that he had another brother. They all grieve for the lost years that can never be recaptured.
A Powerful Bond
According to S.P. Banks and M.D. Kahn, authors of The Sibling Bond, the bond between brothers and sisters is unique. “It is the longest lasting relationship most people have. It is often longer than the parent-child relationship. Most often it outlives the husband-wife relationship. While contact may lessen throughout the years, a person’s lifetime quest for personal identity is vitally interwoven with his or her siblings.”
Banks and Kahn identify three factors that serve to enhance the intensity of the sibling bond: accessibility to each other, lack of parental meeting of needs, and the need for a meaningful personal identity. These authors suggest that generally, sibling connections and attachments are even closer than usual when there has been inadequate parental care and nurture.
This condition is usually the case in children who enter the foster care system. Children who endure separation experience trauma. The degree to that trauma is linked to several factors: the significance of the person lost, whether the situation is temporary or permanent, the child’s perception of the loss as his or her fault, the child’s age, and whether other means of emotional support are available. When siblings are separated in foster care or though adoption, they experience additional trauma. There is evidence that the presence of siblings minimizes the trauma of parental separation and loss. A brother or sister can often comfort a younger sibling when they a thrust into a new and strange situation.
Even when siblings are separated early in life, their ties may remain strong. In Adopting the Older Child, author Claudia Jewett-Jarrett says, “in many cases children deprived of parents form a sub-family, with one child assuming the parental responsibility for another. Consequently, the ties between these children are often even stronger than the ties of the children to their biological parents. Children tend to cling together to reduce the overwhelming strangeness of their new life.”
“Children separated from one another,” Jewett-Jarrett continues, “may never resolve their feelings of loss. Faint memories of brothers and sisters in their birth families leave an intense longing for connection. They worry about their siblings’ safety. Occasionally, they fear that their sister or brother died or disappeared and the information was kept from them. There may be more of a drive in adopted adults to locate their biological siblings than their parents because of the great hole left in their personal history.” Other adoption professionals affirm that for children who have had ongoing relationships with siblings, the importance of continued contact should not be ignored.
Why Siblings are Permanently Separated
Deciding to permanently separate children through adoption is never easy for agency staff. Most often circumstances beyond the agency’s control dictate the options, and the reasons for separating the children may be many.
Some siblings are separated because of the sum of their individual physical and emotional needs. Taking only many children with many needs creates an overwhelming demand for one family to assume. Bringing in multiple children with multiple problems can potentially set that family up for disruption.
The second reason for separating simply the reality that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find families willing to accept a large sibling group. Hampered by budget and time constraints, overworked caseworkers often feel that they have a no other option than to separate the children to facilitate placement at least somewhere.
A third reason for separating children may involve safety when one sibling has victimized another. Ten-year old Robby and his 6-year-old sister Karie where a close-knit sibling group. Robby took care of Karie while they lived in their birth home but he also abused her, encouraged to do so by his father. None of that was known until Robby offended int he pre-adoptive home. His prospective parents felt ill equipped to handle such behaviors and ensure Karie’s safety, so they asked for his immediate removal from their home.
Why Some Parents Terminate Contact
After the decision is made to separate the children, adoptive parents are faced with some remaining questions. ‘Should these children have contact?” “Who is going to be responsible to see that their connections are maintained?” Occasionally, parents decide to end contact. Why?
For some adoptive parents, fear is the reason they end contact between their child and his or her siblings. “We’ve had our son now for over a year. He rarely mentions his sister anymore. I guess I don’t see any importance in opening up old wounds. I am afraid of having to deal with his past,” one adoptive dad commented.
Other parents disrupt contact because they feel the child is now a member of their family. A fact that is true, but some parents desire to erase all memory of the child’s life before the adoption and begin with a blank slate. Joan, a new adoptive mom, put it this way: ” I want this child to have the opportunity to go on with his life, without the constant reminder of his past. Keeping him away from his two sisters will do that, won’t it?”
What’s Best for the Child?
For parents faced with the issue of sibling contact, Jewett-Jarrett and other specialists in the field offer these suggestions:
- The best interest of the children must be the priority. For children who now have contact with their siblings, family must be open to some type of continued contact. If face-to-face contact is not possible because of distance or other uncontrollable factors, pictures should be exchanged and addresses shared so that the fear of losing the sibling to death or disappearance is minimized.
- Honor the child’s wishes about how and when he want to keep in touch with brothers and sisters. Contact between siblings who have been separated for a length of time must be handled with sensitivity and appropriate timing.
- Recognize that although the child has been adopted into a new family, memories of brothers and sisters cannot be erased, ignored, or denied. Although grafted into a new family tree, a portion of the roots may still cling to another.
An adoptive mother in Ohio answered the question about whether to continue sibling contact with an enthusiastic “Yes!” They maintain regular contact with their son’s siblings who were placed in another adoptive home. “Why do we encourage this? I feel that this is a most positive tie for Brandon. I want him to know his brothers and realize that he wasn’t abandoned alone but has brothers who have experienced the same problems. When he gets older, he will already have a support system in place, made up of two of the most important people in the world to him – his older brothers.
Source: Jayne Schooler, Originally published in Adoptive Families magazine. Reprinted with permission of the author and Adoptive Families magazine. Jayne Schooler, an adoptive parent and independent trainer and consultant on foster care and adoption issues, is the author of “The Whole Life Adoption Book.”