In foster care and adoption, too many siblings are needlessly separated from one another. Over the years, no bond is typically longer, stronger, or more comforting than that between siblings. Especially when children and youth have been separated from other birth family members, the connection between siblings is critically important to their emotional health and well-being. Siblings often provide continuity and family stability during a separation from home and family. Separating siblings can intensify a child’s or youth’s grief or trauma.
Foster children and youth should be able to identify whom they consider a sibling, which might include full biological siblings (whether or not they have lived together), half siblings, step siblings, adopted siblings, and foster siblings with whom they have a strong connection. Placement decisions made to keep siblings together are particularly important for children and youth who have been raised together as siblings.
When it is safe and in the best interests of the children and youth involved, agencies and courts should strive to place siblings in the same foster home, and maintain the goal of keeping children together until they can be reunited with birth families or placed in the same adoptive or guardianship family.
Siblings can and should be placed together in foster and adoptive families. In those situations where siblings cannot remain together because it is not in their best interests or where improper practices have separated them, agencies, courts, and foster and adoptive families must dedicate themselves to maintaining or building connections among the siblings.
State, provinces, territories, tribes, and all placing agencies should establish a written policy on sibling issues that includes the following provisions:
- A broad definition of siblings that includes children’s and youth’s own perception of who their siblings are, including relationships with siblings that they may not yet know.
- Sibling interests must be considered at each stage of the placement process and at each placement decision.
- Keeping siblings together or reuniting them as soon as possible is a paramount priority whenever it can be done safely and is in the best interests of the siblings.
- When a child or youth has a sibling who has previously been placed for adoption, the placing agency must contact the adoptive parents of that sibling and, if the parents are interested, the agency must consider them as a resource unless the placement would not be in the best interest of the siblings.
- Agencies must be required to show cause before separating siblings, rather than needing to show cause to keep siblings together.
- Where foster care and adoption licensing requirements limit the number of children who can be cared for in one family, exceptions should be made to keep sibling groups together.
Agencies and courts should consider sibling issues at every decision point and in every hearing related to foster children and youth. Agencies should include information on sibling issues in every report to the court, and courts should hold agencies accountable for building and maintaining sibling relationships.
Keeping Siblings Together
- Placing siblings with kin (including older siblings) increases their chance for retaining family connections not only with one another but with other family members, and such placements should be pursued whenever possible. (See NACAC’s position statements on kinship care and subsidized guardianship.)
- States, provinces, territories, and placing agencies must dedicate resources and funding to identifying and replicating strategies that successfully keep siblings together, such as placement with kin or recruiting and supporting foster and adoptive families who are willing to take sibling groups.
- Sibling relationships should be considered in each and every foster and adoptive placement decision, along with the child’s or youth’s other needs. Simply because siblings were separated once in foster care, they should not have to remain separated throughout foster care or into adoption.
- Training should be required for all in the child welfare system (agency staff, CASAs, judges, prospective parents, etc.) on sibling issues and rights, and how to weigh competing interests in determining children’s and youth’s best interests.
- Before any attempt to separate siblings is made, the placing agency should first work to overcome any barriers to keeping the siblings together. The siblings should receive intensive, dedicated services to address those barriers before a decision is made to separate them.
- Foster and adoptive families must receive specific information about specific sibling dynamics they may face, including any potential conflicts or sexual acting out among siblings that are being placed with them, and must be provided services to address these issues in the family. When necessary, parents should receive training on how to respectfully and gradually help children or youth who have become a parent figure let go of this role with their siblings.
- When children or youth have lived together as siblings in foster care and consider themselves siblings (whether or not they are biologically related), the placing agency should consider these relationships along with any other biological relationships when making placement decisions.
- Each case is unique and should be handled on an individual basis. Agencies must explore the individual circumstances of each case, including the quality of attachments among siblings and foster or adoptive parents, and make decisions based on the best interests of the children and youth involved. Whenever possible, the siblings themselves should be involved in the decision-making process both about placement and fostering connections. Placements should not be automatically disrupted to keep siblings together.
Maintaining Sibling Connections
- If intensive services to keep siblings together are unsuccessful, siblings who are separated should be encouraged to maintain significant connections with one another, with safeguards in place to protect the safety of all parties. When siblings are separated, keeping those siblings geographically close to one another should be an important consideration during placement decisions.
- Agency staff should discuss thoroughly with prospective foster and adoptive parents each child’s or youth’s siblings and the need to either accept all of them in one placement or to keep connections among siblings who cannot be placed together. Agencies should never underestimate foster or adoptive families’ creativity and willingness to preserve sibling ties and assume care for multiple children. Families considering placement of siblings who have been separated should be committed to maintaining relationships with the siblings and their new families.
- Agencies must schedule and facilitate visits among all siblings in foster care who are placed apart beginning no later than two weeks after placement. The visits should be frequent enough and of an appropriate length to develop and maintain meaningful sibling relationships. In addition, agencies should encourage and facilitate weekly phone conversations, teleconferences, e-mail with web camera, or other communication among the siblings. Less frequent visitation is acceptable only if so ordered by a court.
- Under no circumstance should any foster parent, group home, or agency be permitted to restrict contact between siblings as a form of discipline. The placing agency should be responsible for ensuring that visits and other communication among siblings take place.