Connecting with Siblings
Hon. Leonard Edwards (ret.), Judge-in-Residence, Center for Families, Children and the Courts, California Administrative Office of the Courts
Summary: With the passage of the Fostering Connections to Success Act, the shift from reliance upon foster care to relative care is almost complete. Importantly for siblings, the law now prefers siblings to remain together when removed from parental care and to stay connected when separation occurs.
Not only do foster children lose their parents—they often lose their siblings. Foster youth across the country complain that they are not placed with their siblings, that they have little or no contact with their siblings, and that the professionals watching over them do not have the resources or the will to keep them connected with their siblings. Sibling contact is an issue that affects many foster youth. Between 65–85% of children entering the foster care system have at least one sibling and 30% have four or more. In my work as an attorney and as a juvenile court judge, I frequently heard the anguish expressed by foster youth who had lost track of their siblings. This is an important issue for them as it should be for all professionals involved in their cases.
Section 206 of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, (Fostering Connections Act) legislation addresses these issues by providing that:
"...Reasonable efforts shall be made (A) to place siblings removed from their home in the same foster care, kinship guardianship, or adoptive placement, unless the State documents that such a joint placement would be contrary to the safety or well-being of any of the siblings; and (B) in the case of siblings removed from their home who are not so jointly placed, to provide for frequent visitation or other ongoing interaction between the siblings, unless the State documents that frequent visitation or other ongoing interaction would be contrary to the safety or well-being of any of the siblings."
California passed the earliest and strongest sibling contact legislation in the country. The legislation was promoted by the California Youth Connection (CYC), a coalition of foster youth who have organized in order to advocate for better outcomes for foster youth. In 1997 AB 2196 required a discussion in the case plan about sibling contact when siblings were proposed to be adopted separately. It also authorized the court to order sibling contact as long as the adopting parents did not object. Then in 2000, AB 1987 required court reports to include a discussion of sibling relationships and visitation. The next year CYC persuaded the legislature to pass AB 705, which requires that siblings be placed together when appropriate.
Several issues prevent some siblings from being placed together. Foster and relative homes often cannot manage large sibling groups. Some foster youth have special needs that cannot be effectively addressed in a home with multiple children. Older siblings sometimes abuse younger siblings. Yet, even in these situations, commentators conclude that separating siblings may be unnecessary and may bring about additional trauma to the separated siblings. Relatives, in particular, often will open their homes to all of the children in the family. Moreover, using group decision-making models such as family group conferencing, team decision making, and family team meetings, relatives have the opportunity to develop a placement and visitation plan for the children. When no one family can accept all the siblings, they often divide up the children among two or more families and thus keep the family together, albeit in separate homes.
In many cases special needs children can be given the attention they need while still residing with their siblings, and tailored interventions can prevent older siblings from abusing their younger brothers and sisters. The concern is that separating siblings even in these circumstances can lead to a greater risk of emotional disturbances and school problems. Separation also teaches children that family relationships are not important.
Many positive results flow from keeping siblings together. Family connections are maintained. The trauma related to parental removal is reduced, siblings can provide emotional support for one another, and visitation with the birth parents is easier when siblings are placed together. Moreover, it is clear that siblings prefer to be placed with one another.
If siblings must be separated, the federal law requires that the professionals plan for frequent visitation and other forms of contact. This means that social workers should try to place siblings near each other and certainly not in different towns, counties, or states. Social workers must identify resources to ensure that transportation is provided for sibling visitation. Because telephone contact appears to be the preferred mode of contact for today’s youth, telephones should be provided for children to stay in contact with their siblings. Perhaps social workers can make arrangements so that siblings can attend the same school or the same church, or participate in the same community activities.
All of this takes additional resources, but some help can come from the community. The Hawai’i courts have responded by starting a program on two islands where volunteers facilitate siblings visits. CASA volunteers also frequently make it possible for foster youth to meet with their siblings.
The juvenile court judge has an important role to play regarding sibling contact for foster children. The judge should insist that all social worker reports include information regarding sibling contact. The judge should require the attorney/GAL for the child to report to the court on that issue. At each court hearing, the judge should talk with each child about sibling contact and what the child’s desires are. Judges will find that attention to sibling contact will accomplish the law’s goals and be greatly appreciated by the children appearing in court.
Many standard approaches to foster care are changing. It is only within the past 30 years that relative preference became the law in most states, and only 20 years since the first federal law expressed that preference. With the passage of the Fostering Connections Act, the shift from reliance upon foster care to relative care is almost complete. The federal government has joined many states in providing tools for identifying and engaging relatives. More importantly for siblings, the law now prefers siblings to remain together when removed from parental care and to stay connected when separation occurs. The burden now shifts to us, the professionals working in the foster care system, to ensure that siblings are placed together—or at least that they maintain contact with one another after removal from parental care.
Editor's Note: Please also see the following articles by Judge Edwards:
 Schuerger, K., “Information Packet: Siblings in Foster Care, NRCFCPP.
 P.L 110-351 (2008)