Vol. 8, No. 2• May 2004

Sustaining Connections When Siblings Are Separated

They can be comforters, caretakers, role models, faithful allies, and best friends. Most brothers and sisters share years of experiences that form a bond, a common foundation they do not have with anyone else. If their birth parents were unable to provide the necessary care, sibling attachments can be even closer.

Brothers and sisters separated from each other through foster care and adoption experience trauma, anger, and an extreme sense of loss. Research suggests that separating siblings may make it difficult for them to begin healing, make attachments, and develop a healthy self-image. Indeed, because of the affection they share, separated siblings often feel they have lost a part of themselves.

For these reasons, North Carolina policy explicitly states that siblings must be placed together whenever possible, unless such a placement would be contrary to a child’s developmental, treatment, or safety needs. Policy also states that if siblings are separated, frequent and regular ongoing contact must be arranged and facilitated (NCDSS, 2004).

Here are some ways social workers and foster, relative, and adoptive parents can help separated siblings stay connected:

Develop Your Knowledge

  • Separation anxiety will be strongest immediately before or after placement. Be sensitive to the loss the children are feeling. Many will experience separation from siblings in the same way they experience separation from their parents. Respond accordingly.

  • Understand that strong, healthy attachments between brothers and sisters promotes other vital life attachments—including attachment to foster and adoptive parents.

  • Recognize that supporting sibling connections requires resources: transportation, phone access, etc.

  • Because it can be so beneficial, even if children seem passive or uninterested, parents and professionals should encourage contact between siblings unless prohibited by a therapist.

Take Action

  • Learn about your children’s history with their siblings. Ask them how they feel about their brothers and sisters.

  • Maintain frequent (at least monthly) contact through visits, phone calls, e-mail, and letters.

  • Meet in a place that is appropriate to children’s needs. For example, siblings often feel a surge of energy and emotion when they are reunited. Settings that require them to be calm and quiet may not work.

  • Finding time to bring siblings together is hard for busy parents. Consider finding someone outside the family who would be willing to make this his or her only assignment.

  • Have a group portrait made. Send prints to each sibling.

  • Plan get-togethers or birthday parties for siblings. Send cards and help your kids to celebrate their siblings’ birthdays.

  • Promote contact with “siblings” who are not biologically related, but who have formed attachments after living together in foster care. Though not legally recognized, this bond can affect children’s long-term development.

Sources and Further Reading
Barbell, K. (1995). Is our family focus wide enough to include siblings? <www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/nrcfcpp/policy-issues/cwla-article-siblings.html>

Buskirk, J. (2002). Tips for professionals serving siblings. Family Voices, Summer 2002. <www.mnasap.org>.

National Resource Center on Foster Care and Permanency Planning. (2004). <www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/nrcfcpp/policy-issues/siblings.html>

N.C. Division of Social Services. (2004). Chapter IV: 1201 Child Placement Services. In N.C. Children's Services Policy Manual. Raleigh, NC: Author. <info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-10/man/CSs1201c5-05.htm>

“Why separate children?” Children’s Services Practice Notes, 2(4), 7–8. <www.practicenotes.org/vol2_no4/why_separate_siblings.htm>.

Copyright 2004 Jordan Institute for Families