Exploring Sibling Separation in Foster Care

December 8, 2020

By Sirui Chen, Field Center MSW Graduate Student

December is a special month for families to get together and celebrate holidays. However, many children in foster care are not lucky enough to celebrate these special days with their loved siblings. Research estimates that more than 50% of children in foster care are separated from at least one sibling. Sometimes siblings have little contact with each other or even lose all connection after entering foster care. The separation of siblings brings traumatic experiences and causes long-lasting life challenges.

Although the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 addressed the importance of keeping siblings together when removing them from their parents’ home, organizations and social workers still lack clear rules and regulations to follow step by step. As a result, the placing of siblings together in foster care is often based on “luck” – whether their social workers have resources, time and enough patience to arrange for them to be placed together.

ReMoved, a three-part film on the journey through foster care from the child’s point of view, poignantly sheds light on the impact of sibling separation through the eyes of Zoe, a young girl taken from her home and placed into foster care. In ReMoved Part 2, Zoe’s life started to become bright and meaningful after her dearest younger brother came to the same foster home as her. However, unexpectedly and without explanation, her brother was again taken away from her by the foster care system. She felt heartbroken and was destroyed by this traumatic experience of losing her brother a second time. Although this film tells a story of an imagined “Zoe,” there are so many similar real stories that happen in foster care again and again.

To better understand the issues around sibling separation and placement in foster care, researchers expanded upon previous studies and found that there were long-term positive results for children who lived with siblings in foster care system. Children who were placed without their siblings or were not consistently placed with their siblings had higher possibilities of experiencing a placement disruption compared with children who were placed with their siblings. In addition, the separation of siblings influenced their emotional and behavioral regulations. Children who had an opportunity to stay with their siblings in foster homes showed higher integration and belonging with their foster families. Yet another study analyzed the outcomes of sibling separation and had similar findings that children placed with siblings had closer relationship with caregivers, better performances in school, and fewer behavioral problems.

The connection between siblings plays a critical role for children who experience the transition from their original home to a foster home. Researchers emphasize the importance of sibling bonds for children entering the foster care system. While transitioning into an unfamiliar place, siblings can offer emotional support and provide each other with comfort. The feelings of love and connection with siblings create a more stable environment for children during the unpredictable transition to foster care.

Although numerous research studies provide evidence that keeping siblings together in foster care produces better outcomes, there are still many barriers and challenges in bringing it into practice. First, although placing siblings together is always a priority goal for well-being and permanency, case workers should consider and conduct an assessment of the sibling relationship and previous experiences to make sure that there are no potential negative impacts on children if they will be placed together. The risks may include physical, sexual or verbal abuse between siblings. Second, the differences of needs among siblings can cause another barrier to placing them together. Some children may need more attention and care than other children in a sibling group, which can create a difficult task for foster parents to take care of all the siblings. Third, for some foster care agencies, it is difficult to find foster families willing to take sibling groups. For many reasons, including financial capacity and limitations on space or time, some foster parents do not consider taking more than one foster child. The lack of available foster families makes it challenging for the system to ensure continued sibling connection.

To reduce barriers and improve connection between siblings, there are some suggestions and promising practices. First, always keep in mind how important and irreplaceable the sibling bonds are while making decisions in placing foster children. Find as many resources as possible before making placement choices. Second, if placing siblings together seems impossible, make sure that siblings placed in different settings can have regular and frequent contacts, including arranging special meetings for separated siblings during holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays. Third, find help from agencies, for example, Camp to Belong or the Neighbor to Neighbor Program, to help siblings connect with and support each other.

For children like “Zoe,” who are removed from their parents and have a hard time moving from one foster family to another, the unconditional love from siblings becomes a beacon of light in their life. The love and support between siblings brings them courage and hope; as “Zoe” said, “Maybe I can write my own story, start from scratch, forget all the past.” There is no reason for us to not give them our best efforts to keep siblings together.

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