How can I maintain sibling connections?A reader asks ...
The young man in my care has sisters and brothers who are placed elsewhere. How can I help him keep up a meaningful connection with them?
It is widely understood and accepted, both by resource parents and child welfare professionals, that children in foster care should be placed in the same home as their siblings whenever possible. Being separated from their brothers and sisters can be a significant trauma for young people, deeply impacting their emotional well-being.
Unfortunately, there are times when siblings cannot be placed together. Following are some ways resource parents can help children maintain these important relationships when siblings are apart.
Frequent, Consistent Visits
Siblings in foster care who are placed separately usually have court-ordered visits with each other. The importance of these visits cannot be overstated. Try to keep them as consistent as possible. When small variances must be made (for example, moving the day of the week that the visit takes place), try to give the children as much information about why the change needs to happen and when the next visit will be. You may not realize how much they look forward to their Thursday afternoon visits. Children may find a change in the time or day of visits jarring and scary.
Joint Outings and Experiences
Planning a day trip to the zoo or a vacation at the beach? Signing little Johnny up for soccer or summer camp? Maybe you could coordinate these activities with the child’s sibling’s caregivers, thereby facilitating “extra” sibling time for the children to look forward to in addition to their scheduled visits. Any time you can create overlap in childhood experiences helps to strengthen the sibling bond. Get creative in thinking about activities your child could share with his or her siblings.
No matter what they do when you get them together, always take lots of pictures and share those pictures with them. They can use them in their Lifebooks, and just look at them. Too many youth in foster care grow up without pictures of their childhood.
Helping Children with Complicated Emotions
Sometimes sibling visits stir up complex emotions, such as intense feelings surrounding shared traumatic experiences. These powerful emotions can sometimes result in behavioral challenges once the visits are over. This, in turn, may cause caregivers to conclude that the visits are having a negative impact on the children, leading to requests that visits be discontinued or occur less frequently. In reality, children may just need some help expressing and working through their feelings. Could a joint therapy session be scheduled for the siblings together? Could the visits be used as an opportunity for the children to complete sections of their Lifebooks together? Help them name more uncomfortable emotions that may come up, such as anger or guilt, and talk with them about a time when you felt that way.
Arrange Other Forms of Contact
When siblings must be placed some distance away from each other, visits may have to be less frequent out of necessity. When this happens, frequent contact through letters, calls, emails, cards, and social media (if age- and developmentally-appropriate) become a critical tool to maintaining the sibling connection over long distances. In-person visits should still take place as much as possible, but these other contact methods can help siblings stay close.
Involve the Children in the Planning
When children must go longer in between visits, the sibling relationship can suffer. Involve children in the planning of the next visit as much as is age- and developmentally-appropriate. Knowing exactly when they will next see their brothers and sisters can give children a greater sense of security and control. It also sends the message that you know that this is important to them, and that you respect their thoughts and ideas.
Overnight Visits/Joint Respite Care
Talk to the children’s social worker about organizing joint respite care for all the siblings together. Could you and the siblings’ caregivers act as each other’s sources of respite care, thereby facilitating sibling slumber parties? The Reasonable and Prudent Parenting Standards for North Carolina state that “normal childhood activities” include overnight activities outside the direct supervision of the caregiver for up to 72 hours. Remember that every child is different, and overnight visits should only occur if the safety of all children is a reasonable expectation.
A Capacity Exemption?
In certain circumstances, after careful assessment and evaluation DHHS may grant foster home licensing capacity exemptions so that larger sibling groups can be placed together. Capacity exemptions are case-specific, and are only available when all the children to be placed in the home are siblings. For more information about capacity exemptions, please talk to your social worker.
Committing to maintaining sibling connections leads to improved well-being and increased placement stability for children. Thank you for ensuring that children’s emotional needs are met!
Response by the NC Division of Social Services. Portions of this response were obtained from the Child Welfare Information Gateway (https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/siblingissues.pdf). If you have a question about foster care or adoption in North Carolina you’d like answered in “A Reader Asks,” send it to us using the contact form here.