Ask the GAL: Siblings suffer when split up in foster care

August 29, 2012 

Q: What happens to children who are siblings when they are removed from their parents?

A: Keep in mind that the children are the victims of their parents' abuse, abandonment or neglect. Unfortunately, when children are removed for their protection, many come into care as a sibling group, or they already have a sibling in care. One study states that 70 percent of children in care also have a sibling in care. Manatee County is no exception, with many cases having sibling groups of four, five and six children.

Although all child welfare agencies agree that placing siblings together is preferable, when children come into care as a group it is often very difficult to place them in the same home. The shortage of foster homes means that very few homes will be able to take more than one or two siblings, and relatives are rarely prepared to take a large number of children into their home.

So the children are often split apart in order to provide them a bed.

Guardian ad Litem Rachel Bailey represents a sibling group of five who are placed in four different homes, from Arcadia to Sarasota. On her visits with the children, she says, they always want to know what their siblings are doing and how they are. The children are lonely and only visit every other week. When they do get visits, they often have to miss school for the children to be together. Sometimes it takes the transporter a whole day to coordinate a visit with the children and the parents.

Separating the very powerful bond of a sibling relationship when the children are under the extreme stress of removal can be disastrous for the children. Their siblings are their first peer group where they learn their social skills and how to negotiate conflict. It will most likely be the longest relationship they will have throughout their lifetime.

In families where parents are substance-abusing, the oldest sibling may be playing the parent role by providing the nurturing and support to the other children that the parents are unable to provide. In essence, at removal, the younger children lose the parents and the nurturer.

Separated siblings are more likely to experience placement disruptions and less likely to achieve reunification or adoption. It is essential for siblings to maintain regular contact to promote good

mental and physical health and to allow children to nurture their sibling relationships.

When children are able to be placed with their siblings, studies show a significantly higher rate of family reunification. A single placement can also reduce the workload of case managers who only have to visit one home and are not obligated to arrange for sibling visits between homes.

Foster parent communication with the child's family is also easier when only one foster family is involved. Having the children placed together can avoid the permanent separation of the children when one sibling is adopted by a caregiver and the other siblings, with other caregivers, are not.

Two foster homes being built in Palmetto by Guardian Angels of South West Florida will offer some much-anticipated relief by providing a few sibling groups the opportunity to be housed together.

Pam Hindman, director of the Guardian ad Litem program for the 12th Judicial Circuit, writes this weekly column for the Herald. Email Pam at askthegal@12gal.org, or write to her at Guardian ad Litem Program, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Hensley Wing, Suite 330, Bradenton 34205.

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