2000 Jordan Institute
Why Separate Siblings?
They can be comforters, caretakers, role models, spurs to achievement, faithful allies, and best friends. No matter how close they are, most brothers and sisters share years of experiences that form a bond, a common foundation they do not have with anyone else (Viorst, 1986). If parents are unable to provide the necessary care, sibling attachments can be even closer (Banks & Kahn, 1982).
Brothers and sisters separated from each other in foster care experience trauma, anger, and an extreme sense of loss. Research suggests that separating siblings may make it difficult for them to begin a healing process, make attachments, and develop a healthy self-image (McNamara, 1990). Indeed, because of the reciprocal affection they share, separated siblings often feel they have lost a part of themselves.
It stands to reason, then, that the decision to place siblings separately should be made with great care. This article will consider some of the factors used to make this decision and provide suggestions for helping children when separation must occur.
In her article, Sibling Ties in Foster Care and Adoption Planning, Margaret Ward identifies two primary reasons siblings are separated during placement (1984). The first is a lack of resources: most agencies do not have many homes that can accommodate sibling groups, especially large ones.
The second reason has to do with the needs of the children in the sibling group. The individual needs of siblings can be quite diverse; sometimes a social worker fears that a single foster family cannot adequately meet all of the children's needs. For instance, if one child is more needy than his siblings, it is assumed he would receive better care as the only child in a foster home. This is not necessarily the case, however. According to Ward, "To place a child as an only child or as one of a small family subjects the child to concentrated attention and concentrated hopes of the foster parents. This can be stressful because the foster parents may expect the child to change more rapidly than he is able" (p. 325).
Factors to Consider
In her book A Child's Journey Through Placement, Vera Fahlberg advises social workers to consider a number of factors before separating siblings (see "Guidelines for Separating Siblings"). In her article, Ward identifies four factors that need to be considered in deciding whether to separate siblings. First, determine the strength of the ties between the siblings. One way to assess this is by looking at the length of time the siblings have already been apart. If they have been apart, were they placed close enough to maintain contact through school, church, or otherwise? Age at separation can influence the strength of the ties between siblings. Generally, the older the child, the closer the attachment and the more traumatic the separation.
A second factor to consider is whether one of the siblings has assumed a parental role. If so, is the effect on the sibling group negative or positive? For example, "parentified" siblings may undermine foster parents, or they may help everyone in the group accept the placement.
A third factor to consider is the degree and nature of sibling rivalry. While some rivalry is normal, when it is extreme it can be disruptive to the whole family.
Finally, ask the children themselves: do they want to be placed together? This can be the most important factor of all, especially in adoption situations.
Helping Siblings Adjust
When siblings have to be separated, effort should be made to maintain frequent contact through visits, phone calls, and letters. It is important for the social worker to be sensitive to the loss the children are feeling. Workers should follow the same practice guidelines involved in helping children deal with separation from their parents (see "Helping a Child Through a Permanent Separation"). Separation and loss anxiety will be strongest immediately before or after placement.
Banks, S. P., & Kahn, M. D. (1982). The sibling bond. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Fahlberg, V. I. (1991). A child's journey through placement. Indianapolis, IN: Perspectives Press.
Hegar, R. (1988). Legal and social work approaches to sibling separation in foster care. Child Welfare, 67(2), 113-121.
Hegar, R. (1988). Sibling relationships and separations: Implications for child placement. Social Service Review, 62(3), 446-467.
McNamara, J. & McNamara, B. Adoption and the sexually abused child. Human Services Development Institute, Univ. of Southern Maine.
Timberlake, E. & Hamlin, E. (1982). The sibling group: A neglected dimension of placement. Child Welfare, 61(8), 545-552.
Viorst, J. (1986). Necessary losses. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Ward, M. (1984). Sibling ties in foster care and adoption planning. Child Welfare, 63(4), 321-32.
© 1997 Jordan Institute for Families