The Importance of Maintaining Sibling Relationships In Foster Care
When we think of foster care, we can be forgiven for considering one child or young person benefiting from the safe and secure home of a foster family. But for a significant percentage of children and young people in the foster care system, they are not only children. They are part of small and large sibling groups. Siblings for whom staying together represents their own security. Their own home. Their own safety. But who often face separation whether temporarily or not, from their brothers and sisters.
In 2014, more than one third of children and young people in foster care were separated from their siblings. Of 275 sibling groups, 89 of them were split up and placed in separate foster homes.
These are not small numbers. And not insignificantly felt by the already vulnerable children in question. Every effort should be made to maintain these sibling relationships both for the interests of the children, but also in the interests of foster families and our society overall.
Why Sibling Relationships Are So Important
Life Long Relationships
Sibling relationships are for most of us, the longest held relationships of our lives. Out-living friendships, partnerships, marriages and even our relationships to birth parents. Siblings represent a long term sense of who we are, where we come from, and are some of the most fundamental relationships of our lives. Finding ways to continue these relationships is crucial. In particular as children and young people undergo some of the most emotional challenging years of their lives, retaining sibling security is hugely important.
Children and young people in the care and foster care systems often experience anxiety and trauma. They may have been subject to abuse within their birth homes, they may suffer guilt at not being able to help ‘fix’ their home lives and for many, they experience a loss of identity that comes with leaving their birth families. If these children are able to remain at least with their siblings, some of those problems can be minimally eased. Having someone with you who has shared your experiences and understands in a way that no other can what you have been through, is invaluable.
Getting to know foster carers and foster families is made far less daunting when done with your brother or sister at your side. And it has been suggested that staying with siblings has allowed children and young people the confidence to be more open in forming positive relationships in their foster homes.
Studies around the world have shown a number of positive impacts on the wellbeing of cared for children when siblings are placed together. From improvements of behaviour towards peers to experiencing fewer emotional and behavioural problems, performing better in school and encouraging protective behaviour towards one another. The results are unquestionably positive.
It has also been found that keeping children and young people together with their siblings has a positive impact on the stability and permanency of any placement. Higher rates of reunification with birth families, adoption and guardianship have been reported with children and young people who have stayed with their sibling groups versus those who have been separated.
The Challenges Facing Sibling Groups in Foster Care
There are reasons why keeping sibling groups together is difficult. In many cases, sibling groups are large and foster carers do not have the space, time, and ability to offer a home to all of them. There can for example be between 2 and 9 children in a sibling group. Practically, placement seeks to keep 2 or 3 siblings together at once since placing any larger number is often prohibitive.
These sibling groups are also spread in age and this broad range of needs presents another challenge for foster carers who might also have birth children in the home and may feel it too difficult to meet the needs of several children all at very different stages.
In many instances, children and young people enter the care system at different times based on their birth parent’s circumstances. This can mean that one child is already placed in foster care before the others are even in the system. Or it could be that siblings are in different types of care: kinship or stranger foster care, or adoption. In these circumstances, everything possible must be done to enable meetings between siblings and to encourage ongoing contact since the longer that children are in the care system separated from their siblings, the more likely they are to lose track of their brothers and sisters.
Types of Foster Care
Potential foster carers may feel that taking on a group of siblings is impossible for them in the long term. It is worth bearing in mind however, that foster care takes many shapes. Whether a short term or emergency placement, a long term or kinship arrangement, there are many ways in which our foster carers can provide much needed help and security to children in need. Offering a placement even for a temporary period of time can make all the difference to a group of siblings.
It is well recognised that maintaining sibling relationships is hugely positive for children and young people in foster care and with benefits felt for the individuals themselves as well as for foster families, schools, and the greater community, it truly is something that should be encouraged.
 Jones 2016, Akin 2011