Sibling Relationships and the Case for and Against Placing Them Together in Foster Care or Adoption

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1. Introduction:

This essay aims to look more intensely at sibling relationships and the case for and against placing them together in foster care or adoption. It is clear that although the law namely, the Children and Young Person’s act 2008 along with other social norms, support the placing of siblings together in order to maintain the lifelong bond of one of the longest human relationships, there are circumstances where this is neither practical nor ethically possible for this to occur.

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2. Executive Summary:

In the discussion and critiquing of both sides, the theory of attachment is explored to examine the connection between and effect of the various types of attachment in early childhood and the exhibited behaviors later on that would support placement together or apart. The effect of birth order on the way siblings communicate and relate is also looked at not only in my case but also in my own birth children and the children that I care for. As I have not had a placement of traditional siblings, I have drawn upon my own experiences in a rather non-traditional home setting and explored the complex list of blood siblings, nonrelated blood siblings, and other wider networks that exhibit sibling-like behaviors and evoke sibling-like emotions. I have also explored the sibling relationship of my birth children and also the sibling relationship that has developed with the three children that I foster. This includes their own individual relationships within the placement as well as their own experiences as members of birth sibling groups, their birth order, and how as foster siblings they now relate to and communicate with each other and my own children as a group.

3. Define Sibling Relationships: 

The dictionary definition of a sibling is one or more children or offspring having one or both parents in common. However, in today’s society, who has considered a sibling by an individual varies with each set of circumstances. Children are more flexible in who they refer to as siblings and in cultures where the extended family plays key roles in raising children this can be widened even further. When children have lived in more than one family, the sibling relationship can be developed with other non-blood-related children in the household. This holds true in my own circumstances where my step sister considers me fully her sister even though we do not share a blood connection but rather are related through the marriage of our parents.

According to Cicirelli, he suggested that our relationship is that of siblings however and we share similar experiences and memories because of this. In addition to this, I am the product of teenage parents both were 18 years old at the time of my birth. They were both the eldest of several siblings and so they were all youngsters when I was born. In an effort to allow my parents to continue with their studies, both sets of grandparents stepped in help raise me. This meant that I have no full-blood siblings but rather a host of half-siblings and step-siblings and other relatives who I have formed sibling relationships with.  Moreover, my various uncles and aunts on both sides are closer close in age to me than any of my siblings. To this day my relationships with my uncles and aunts are more sibling-like than the eventual siblings I began to have at the age of 12 years old. Both my parents did not have other children until I was at that age. This becomes the same for children in foster care and adoptive homes. Children are less formal than adults in their views of who they consider being a brother or sister. I currently have 3 foster children in my care. T was very quick to identify the other children in the household as siblings and refer to them as her brothers and sister. They all view each other as siblings and treat each other as such. This is evident even in the family dynamics and how they interact with each other. This shows how children in care are able to recognize different types of relationships as sibling relationships even where there is no biological or legal ties exist but rather a close, strong and enduring bond through shared experiences and memories.

4. Types of sibling relationships: 

There are various types of sibling relationships which make for a very complex relationship. Sibling relationships can be aggressive, co-dependent, indifferent, loving, reliant, balanced as well as unbalanced.

5. Laws for protecting sibling’s connections: 

The Children and Young Person’s Act 2008 Part 2, states that local authorities must ensure wherever possible, that siblings are placed together, live close to each other, and are able to keep in contact with each other. This has taught professionals in children’s social care to act to ensure that sibling relationships need to be maintained especially as there are laws and policies which support them in this. It is considered to be in the best interest of the children in care. In the USA sibling placement policies ensure that siblings are able to maintain contact with each other and some statutes have expanded the legal protection of sibling relationships for foster children. California law is recognized as having the strongest of such statutes where it allows any person to petition the courts to request visitation of siblings.

6. Why siblings are important: 

These relationships are important and powerful to a child’s emotions. This is not only in childhood but carries through to adulthood. Our siblings are our first peers and children spend more time with each other than with anyone else. Typically, there is sibling rivalry, closeness can vary at times, and of course, in adolescence, there can be friction when new peers become more important to teens. This is true of my own children who are very close to each other. They have always played with each other, fought with each other, stuck by each other, and influenced each other greatly. Their relationship has provided them both with a great source of continuity and is by far the longest relationship they have both had thus far in their lifetime. Brody et al. studied the emotional support and help that siblings provide for each other. He found that when children need help they first sought out their mothers but then they would turn to older siblings for support and guidance. Children in foster care who are isolated find that sibling support is even needed even more as older siblings were perceived as the only source of help and support no matter their age. The same is true of my three foster children who often are in each other’s company and often fall out but make up fairly quickly. The usual emotions exist for example last week T and C fell out about cigarettes, they did not want to tell me why they had fallen out. They did however makeup when c and his girlfriend broke up and despite their falling out, t stepped up to play facilitator and help C win her back. Their own problems were forgotten. It is further seen when a new foster child joined the group and T got jealous as she felt that E, the newest member of the group was taking C away from her. This was not the case but as T could not look at it from the point of view that C was simply welcoming the new girl, T instead tried her best to get E into trouble thinking to get her removed. Once she realized that would not happen, she has had to learn to live with the new dynamic, and now all three are trying to work out the best way to exist and enjoy being siblings. 

7. Benefits of placing siblings together: 

Children in foster care experience a great deal of losses of people with whom they have significant relationships. Siblings then become their most reliable source of continuity of important attachments. Being with their siblings when entering foster care, helps to promote a sense of well-being and perceived safety for children in care. Being separated from them can trigger grief and anxiety. It is especially important in light of this, to help protect these important ties that provide support to these most vulnerable of children who are removed from their families. The benefit of being placed together contrasts greatly to the traumatic consequences of added feelings of loss, grief, and anxiety about the well-being of their siblings. The shared history of siblings helps to provide continuity for them as well as maintain their identity and sense of belonging. When they are placed in foster care, all sense of belonging and all that is familiar to them is removed. Without a sibling with whom they have a shared history and bond, all that us left is strangers no matter how well-meaning they are. In addition to this, by placing siblings together, the children receive support and help in adjusting to their new circumstances and environment. Safety in numbers so to speak. This not only helps in the first instance but also carries forward throughout their time in care and into adulthood. A Texas study of former children in care found that those who were placed together or had greater access to their siblings whilst in care, and had stronger childhood relationships with siblings, had higher levels of social support, self-esteem, and stronger adult sibling relationships than those who didn’t. A further study by Smith, 1996 shows that over 45% of foster carers believe that children who are placed with siblings felt more secure because they had their siblings with them. 

8. Barriers to and instances where siblings cannot be placed together

Although government policies favor placing siblings together in foster care, this is not always possible in practice. There are a number of instances which leads to siblings being placed separately. This can lead to permanent separation as even with the best of wishes, placing them together really just cannot be achieved. Often times when a sibling group is large, it is difficult to find a placement that is equipped to accept all the siblings in the group. If the children had additional needs and disruptive behavior due to the trauma they have suffered, this can also mean that potential foster carers cannot handle the disruption that one or more of the group causes to the overall placement.  Sometimes, siblings are placed in care at different times, and as such the current carers may not have space or facility to take the additional sibling.

The age gap of the siblings does play a vital part as well. Often times case workers tend to place the children who are closer in age together. This was evident with one of my foster children C. He as 4 years old when he entered care. It was a sibling group of five children. Him and his baby brother mark were placed together because they were closer in age. This doesn’t necessarily mean this was the best match as C was used to being the youngest and now he was thrust into the role of big brother and did not have the support of his two older brothers with whom he had a more secure attachment (Lamb et al., 2014). The varying needs of children in the group will also have an impact on whether or not they can be placed together. If there is a disabled sibling who requires more demanding care, then it may not be possible to find a placement that could support more of the siblings in the group as well as the disabled sibling. This was seen in the case of C and his siblings as his only sister was disabled and in a wheelchair. She was separated from them and they all felt grief and were anxious about her well-being as they had always helped to care for her previously. Separation can also occur because agencies have upper limits on the number of children than can be in a placement at any given time.

However, this shows that when siblings are separated, it is primarily because the system cannot accommodate the needs and best interests of all the children. Sometimes they are so damaged by the trauma that they also cannot heal together. This can be true in the type of reliant, dependent and co-dependent sibling relationships. There are also instances where one or more member of the sibling group is abusive to the others. This could be sexually or physically. Research has shown that sibling assault is one of the most common forms of victimization in families. C was not allowed back to live with his adoptive mother as she felt that he was abusing his younger brother. This could be because of the jealousy he felt as M his younger brother was now the baby, where he once was when his mother was alive. M also had a more secure attachment with the adoptive parents as he was an infant when he was adopted whereas c was already five years old and had experienced the trauma from living with the dysfunction of the home with the biological parents.

Additionally, they did not have shared experiences or memories and C probably felt that M should have allegiance to him as his blood relative where M was more attached to the only parents he ever knew. The beliefs and attitudes of foster carers, social workers, and therapists also play a part in the separation of siblings in care. Many are not convinced that it is indeed easier to place a child in foster care with a sibling. One foster carer remarked ‘the siblings depend on each other too much and shut other people out’. The study also confirms that it is difficult to find foster families that are willing and equipped to facilitate and accept sibling groups. It is also found that foster carers find it much harder to integrate the children into the foster family when they have a sibling with them as they become dependent on each other and look to each other or the dominant sibling for commands and affirmation of their actions and behaviors instead of the foster carer.

9. Siblings in neglectful or abusive families and attachment theory:

As suggested by Brody and Stoneman, children in foster care usually tend to provide the help, nurturing, and support to each other that they would normally expect to receive from a parent. In these circumstances, the siblings act as a buffer against the harsh situations in which they find themselves.  This explains why these relationships in foster care are considered so vitally important to the children. The sibling relationship in these situations does not compensate for them being taken into care but it does help them to become resilient. A younger sibling who is not securely attached to a mother may receive a secure attachment from an older sibling. This would help to minimize the impact of the adverse situation of a parent’s substance abuse or loss. Being together in these adverse circumstances can magnify positive and negative experiences and qualities of a sibling relationship. Kunz, 2001 found that ties between siblings can become closer because they have helped each other through adverse circumstances such as paternal divorce.

10. Supervision:

Supervision forms a vital and integral part of my work as a foster carer. It is even more appreciated because of the traumatized children who are placed in my care. Noble and  Irwin, state that supervision is underpinned by a shared commitment, and in this partnership between myself, my agency, and my supervising social worker it becomes essential to my personal and professional development. Supervision has helped me to develop my reflective practice which is very important when dealing with the children that I care for.  In the instance where T sought to undermine E to get her kicked out of the placement, this was discussed extensively in supervision. Supervision helped me to think about the research and topics that I discuss on this course and look at how I could translate them from theory into practice. I was able to step away and not overthink the situation but rather use an outcomes approach in order to help foster children through this difficult situation.  I effectively considered the risk and other safety procedures as well as maintained professional boundaries but still had good relationships with the children. The three children I foster have themselves identified and accepted each other as non-blood-related siblings. They all act as siblings and even assume the role of based upon birth order. C acts as the ultimate big brother and T love the idea of being the youngest. Something she craves as she is the oldest of her birth siblings and this has not always sat well with her. I think the responsibility that her parents place on her about acting appropriately as the younger siblings copy her has always been a very heavy burden for her to carry. This new set of siblings has given her the room to shed some of that responsibility when she’s not visiting her birth siblings.  Despite the many instances of falling out and making up, they are providing each other with the support and help that they all need as children in care.

However, I reflect on the fact that these children have all had different experiences in care prior to coming into my care. Because of this, I have to ensure that I adjust the way in which I treat them as a group as well as individuals based upon their needs. Kadushin, 1990 argues that treating them, all the same, could lead to oppression whilst Thompson concurs this with his belief that treating everyone the same simply reinforces existing inequalities. In dealing with these very different personalities, I have understood the value of emotional intelligence. Howe, 2009 states that emotional intelligence is can have effects on my behavior as it is about me being aware of my own emotions as it relates to different incidences and how I reflect on them to see how they may affect my interactions with the children. I feel that my ability to contain the children’s emotions when they kick-off is constantly being tested as well as my ability to manage and reflect upon my own emotions when they do. Emotionally it is very draining to keep the peace as I am at heart a peacemaker it comes naturally, but the swearing and arguing in a household that previously would not tolerate such obscenities, do test my endurance and my resolve. I think of my own children and the total disruption to their lives as they do complain about the seemingly constant disruption and aggression in a home that was previously so peaceful. This I admit to my Supervisor, is the most difficult part for me, when my own children begin to feel unhappy in their own homes. Am I doing the right thing? is a question that I have asked myself during these very extreme episodes. I am always thinking about how I was as a sibling and how my children are as siblings and comparing and contrasting to this newfound sibling group. I continue to build my emotional resolve but upon reflection, I am still happy that I choose to foster despite the difficulties especially when I see even the slightest of progress that they make.

11. Conclusion:

Siblings provide comfort, emotional support, a sense of belonging, stability, and continuity. The sibling relationship is one of the closest and longest relationships that humans will have over time. It evolves with time and what may be obligatory in childhood becomes more voluntary in adult ages but the bond endures. Children have different scripts as we all see and remember events differently, but siblings help a great deal in either building up or tearing down one’s self-esteem depending on the type of sibling relationship that exists. Many foster and adopted children when interviewed have indicated that they would prefer to be placed with their siblings and if they have to be separated then they would ask for frequent visitation for the bond to be maintained. However, it is clear to see that there are instances where his is just not possible especially where there are high physical and emotional needs of one, some, or all of the siblings. There are many advantages to placing siblings together but as the welfare of each child is paramount, great emphasis must be placed on initial assessments to see when it is possible and beneficial and when it is not.

References:

  1. Brody, G.H. and Stoneman, Z., 1990. Sibling relationships. Methods of family research: Biographies of research projects, 1, pp.189-212.
  2. Brody, G.H., Stoneman, Z. and McCoy, J.K., 1992. Parental differential treatment of siblings and sibling differences in negative emotionality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 54(3), p.643.
  3. Cicirelli, V., 2013. Sibling relationships across the life span. Springer Science & Business Media.
  4. Graham-Bermann, S.A., Cutler, S.E., Litzenberger, B.W. and Schwartz, W.E., 1994. Perceived conflict and violence in childhood sibling relationships and later emotional adjustment. Journal of Family Psychology, 8(1), p.85.
  5. Lamb, M.E., Sutton-Smith, B., Sutton-Smith, B. and Lamb, M.E. eds., 2014. Sibling relationships: Their nature and significance across the lifespan. Psychology Press.
  6. Sanders, R., 2004. Sibling relationships: Theory and issues for practice. Macmillan International Higher Education.
  7. Stoneman, Z., 2001. Supporting positive sibling relationships during childhood. Mental retardation and developmental disabilities research reviews, 7(2), pp.134-142.
  8. Whiteman, S.D., McHale, S.M. and Soli, A., 2011. Theoretical perspectives on sibling relationships. Journal of family theory & review, 3(2), pp.124-139.
07 July 2022

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