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“Sibling relationships are emotionally powerful and critically important not only in childhood but over the course of a lifetime. . . . .”

 

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The Importance of the Sibling Relationship

“Sibling relationships are emotionally powerful and critically important not only in childhood but over the course of a lifetime. Siblings form a child’s first peer group, and children learn social skills, particularly in managing conflict, from negotiating with brothers and sisters. Sibling relationships can provide a significant source of continuity throughout a child’s lifetime and are likely to be the longest relationships that most people experience.”

Child Welfare Information Gateway, Sibling Issues in Foster Care and Adoption: Bulletins for Professionals (2006), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Section 2: The Importance of Siblings.

“From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. They teach us how to resolve conflicts and how not to; how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them. Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys. Our spouses arrive comparatively late in our lives; our parents eventually leave us. Our siblings may be the only people we’ll ever know who truly qualify as partners for life.”
Kluger, The New Science of Siblings (July 10, 2006), TIME Magazine.

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The Child's Definition of "Sibling" and "Sibling Group"

“Children are less formal than adults in their view of who is a brother or sister. In particular, children involved with the child welfare system may experience a number of different families and may develop ties with other children with whom they may or may not have a biological relationship. In child welfare, the term “fictive kin” has been introduced to recognize types of relationships in a child’s life where there is:

  • Full or half-siblings, including any relinquished or removed at birth.
  • Step-siblings.
  • Other close relatives or non-relatives living in the same kinship home.
  • Foster children in the same family.
  • Group home mates with a close, enduring relationship.
  • Children of the partner or former partner of the child’s parent.

While laws and policies may have restrictive definitions of siblings that typically require a biological parent in common, child- and family-centered practice would respect cultural values and recognize close, nonbiological relationships as a source of support to the child. In these cases, the child may be one of the best sources of information regarding who is considered a sibling...

A study of children’s perspectives on their important relationships among 90 children ages 8 to 12 who were or were not in foster care concluded that the foster children’s smaller networks of relationships with important persons made siblings proportionally more important. . . .
Foster children experienced more losses of significant others, meaning sibling relationships were often one of their only sources for a continuing significant relationship. Nearly one-third of the related siblings named by foster children in this study were not known to their social workers – most were half- or step-siblings...

During intake, workers need to complete a thorough assessment of sibling relationships, including the experience and feelings of each child. They should talk with children individually and ask age-appropriate questions, such as:

  • Which sibling does the child enjoy spending time with?
  • Who will play a game with the child?
  • Which sibling would the child turn to if he were afraid or hurt?
  • Who would listen to a story?

In completing assessments, it is important to recognize that sibling relationships vary greatly in both positive and negative qualities. In evaluating the quality of sibling relationships, the worker will want to look for warmth or affection between siblings, rivalry and hostility, interdependence, and relative power and status in the relationship, as well as determining how much time the siblings have spent together.”

Child Welfare Information Gateway, Sibling Issues in Foster Care and Adoption: Bulletins for Professionals (2006), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

For the legal definition of sibling see our section on Siblings.

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Sibling Placement: Placing Siblings Together

“One of the most critical contributions that child welfare professionals can provide for children who enter care is to preserve their connections with their brothers and sisters...

For children entering care, being with siblings can enhance their sense of safety and well-being. They are not burdened with wondering where their siblings are and whether or not they are safe. Siblings in the same home can provide natural support to each other and some sense of stability and belonging. Continuity of sibling relationships assists children in maintaining a positive sense of identity and knowledge of their cultural, personal, and family histories...

Conversely, a body of research has established that separated siblings in foster care are at higher risk for a number of negative outcomes, including placement disruption; running away; and failure to exit the system to reunification, adoption, or guardianship . . . . Girls separated from all of their siblings are at the greatest risk for poor mental health and socialization...

Although each of the following reasons has been used in the past to separate siblings, child welfare professionals now generally agree that these are not reasons to keep siblings apart:

  • There is too much conflict or rivalry between particular siblings to keep them together.
  • The special needs of a single child require a separate placement.
  • An older child is too involved in taking care of a younger brother or sister.
  • A sibling born after older siblings have been removed from the home can be considered separately for purposes of permanency goals, because the children do not have an established relationship.

In many of these cases, therapy and services will help all the siblings, and the benefits of being together will outweigh those of being separated.”

Child Welfare Information Gateway, Sibling Issues in Foster Care and Adoption: Bulletins for Professionals (2006), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

NOTE: The law requires that before a decision is made regarding the placement of a child with, or away from, his or her siblings, the court must receive a social study (report) from the Social Worker or CASA that contains a factual discussion of the nature of the sibling relationship, including:

  • Whether the siblings were raised together in the same home
  • Whether the siblings shared significant common experiences
  • Whether the siblings have existing close and strong bonds
  • Whether either sibling expresses a desire to visit or live with the other
  • Whether ongoing contact is in each child’s best emotional interest

The social study or evaluation is not limited to these elements, but must include them.
Welfare & Institutions Code § 358.1

As always, the court should consider the best interests of each sibling with a critical eye on each child’s existing relationships and attachments.

For more information on legal issues surrounding sibling placement, see our section on Sibling Placement, and for more information on how a foster youth may ask a judge to make decisions about their sibling relationships, please see our Information For Foster Youth page.

For Instructions on filing a Welfare & Institutions Code §388 Petition to Assert a Sibling Relationship go to the “Request to Change Court Order” on our website.

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Sibling Placement: Placing Siblings Separately

“When siblings might/should be placed separately:

  • safety [ issues such as ]: unresolved incest, sibling violence or sibling emotional abuse
  • serious medical problems of one sibling
  • [placing the children together] would entail removing one or more children from a placement in which they have formed attachments with adults
  • already disrupted joint placement
  • children request it
  • large age difference
  • children don’t recognize the sibling link

Some of the literature implies that the issue of siblings is not important when placing infants, on the assumption that the infant has no relationship with or memory of the older sibling. However, the child’s knowledge that a sibling exists who was never known can lead to a search for that sibling, similar to the search for birth parents who were never known. The individual still feels need to be connected with the sibling.” (Emphasis added).

Schuerger, Information Packet: Siblings in Foster Care (July 2002), National Resource Center for Children in Foster Care and Permanency Planning at the Hunter College School of Social Work, p. 4.

“The same criteria that is applied to preservation or termination of parental rights needs to be applied to the maintenance of sibling ties. Social work practice and the courts do not consider the mere presence of the same genetic pool to be the determining factor of whether or not parental rights will be sustained or terminated. The current state of the relationship and the potential of the relationship to become healthy are of far more importance...

It is not the presence of the biological connection which is of primary importance between siblings, it is the health of the bond. There is no more point to keeping siblings together if they are not good for each other then there is in keeping children in the biological home simply because they were birthed there.”

Hage, Sibling Placement and Attachment, Parenting with Pizazz, 2007.

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Additional Resources

Folman, “I was Tooken”. How Children Experience Removal From Their Parents Preliminary to Placement into Foster Care (1998), 2 Adoption Quarterly 2, pp. 7-35.

Herrick and Piccus, Sibling Connections: The Important of Nurturing Sibling Bonds in the Foster Care System (2005), 27 Children and Youth Services Review 7, pp. 845-861

Brodzinsky, The Experience of Sibling Loss in the Adjustment of Foster and Adopted Children, in Siblings in Adoption and Foster Care, Traumatic Separations and Honored Connections, (Silverstein and Livingston, eds., Praeger Publishers 2009), pp. 43-56.

Mandelbaum, Delicate Balances: Assessing the Needs and Rights of Siblings in Foster Care to Maintain Their Relationships Post-Adoption (2011), 41 New Mexico Law Review 1, pp. 1-68; Rutgers School of Law-Newark Research Paper No. 084.

Nat’l Resource Center for Foster Care & Permanency Planning at the Hunter College School of Social Work, NRCPFC Sibling Practice Curriculum. Module 1: The IssuesModule 2: The Practice. Handouts.

Schuerger, Information Packet: Siblings in Foster Care (July 2002), Nat’l Resource Center for Foster Care & Permanency Planning at the Hunter College School of Social Work.

Cohn, Information Packet: The Importance of the Sibling Relationship for Children in Foster Care (April 2008), Nat’l Resource Center for Foster Care & Permanency Planning at the Hunter College School of Social Work.

 

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