In continued honor of National Siblings Day, I want to talk for a bit about one of the biggest losses that our foster children face, which is losing track of their siblings. It is hard to find statistics, but I have seen estimates that anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of foster children have siblings also in care, and the vast majority of those siblings are in different placements. There are many benefits to placing children together with their siblings, but there are many obstacles to joint placements. Foster parents simply may not have the resources to take care of sibling groups, children in the family may have different therapeutic needs, and half-siblings may have different family options. In this post, I want to focus on the narrow question of three things that we as foster parents can do when our children are separated from their siblings.
Recognize the Importance of Connections
The first thing we need to do is recognize how important these biological family connections are to our children. Last week, I attended the funeral of a long-time family friend. She was the first of her siblings to pass away, and a mutual friend commented, “When you lose a sibling, you lose part of your history.” Brothers and sisters share a part of our lives that no one else has experienced with us. It is inevitable that older people will lose siblings, but it is still hard to lose that resource. For children at the beginning of their lives, losing that connection can be devastating. We need to do what we can to keep those connections alive.
Of course, as always, our efforts have to be limited by safety and our child’s preferences. They may not want to stay in touch with siblings, or there may be a history of abuse or criminal activity that makes contact dangerous. In most situations, however, the net effect is beneficial to our children, and we need to harness that resource for them.
Look for Creative Options
I’ve seen quite a few excellent suggestions in foster care support groups and message boards. For example, work with whatever placement your child’s sibling has to encourage visitation, perhaps plan picnics or joint activities with other foster families, and encourage Zoom meetings between the children. Some situations may require more creativity. For example, one of my foster daughters once counted up seven half-siblings from her father’s two marriages and previous relationships. All of her siblings had different mothers, lived with different families in different states, and ranged in age from adult to infant. There simply was no way that I could host any meetings or arrange joint visitation. But I tried to help her attend holiday gatherings with her father’s family, collect telephone numbers and social media accounts, and relaxed limits on her telephone use so that she could stay in touch as much as possible. If your child’s family situation is complex, search for ideas and think creatively to help them stay connected.
Advocate for Your Child
Caseworkers are busy and often overwhelmed with their caseloads. Managing the immediate needs of a single child may be all that they can focus on. According to a 2008 study, caretakers play a far more significant role in maintaining contact than caseworkers. It will be up to you to remind the caseworker that your child’s immediate needs include regular contact with their siblings. Staying connected with family is every bit as important to your child’s mental health as therapy sessions. Stay focused on that need, and do not let the system lose sight of it.
Keeping foster children connected with their siblings is a complex issue, and I’ve only touched the surface. The three principles above, however, are a good start to fulfilling an essential part of our job as foster parents.