In Focus: Struggling for Sibling Connections

Sunny

Sunny remembering her baby brother whom she only met once.

When Deanna and Alyssa were found in a cardboard box in the bogs of New Jersey, their skin was caked with dirt. All but two of 3-year old Deanna’s teeth were completely decayed, and 7-month-old Alyssa’s neck muscles were so underdeveloped that she couldn’t even hold up her head.

The girls were rescued and placed in foster care–just like their sisters and brothers already had been.

But more than a decade later, the pair only has sporadic contact with some siblings, and none with others. They are now trying to find the sister they never met, whom they know only as Brandi.

“I know the state could have done a way better job, because our sisters and brothers are in different families and we don’t get to see them,” said Alyssa.

Adds Deanna: “I always think about the relationship that we could have.”

When it comes to being split from brothers and sisters, Deanna and Alyssa are not alone. Studies suggest that more than half the children in U.S. foster care have one or more siblings in the system, and between 60 and 73 percent of sibling groups do not live in the same foster placement.

Experts agree that although separation may occasionally be in a child’s best interest, for most kids the consequences can be harsh, especially to those who relied heavily on one another in chaotic homes.

“Separating siblings who have been temporarily or permanently removed from their parents can severely intensify grief and trauma. In some cases sibling separations can be even more traumatic
than separation from parents,” Sharon Connor wrote in “Siblings in Out-of-Home Care,” published by the National Resource Center for Family-Centered Practice and Permanency at the Hunter College of Social Work.

David Oliva’s childhood was marked by abuse. His mom was in and out of his life, and he never knew his dad. He entered foster care with his four brothers. Three were adopted together, while David and one other brother remained in care. “The only thing that bothers me is the feeling of not having a family and being alone,” David said. “In the earlier years when my brothers and I were separated, it was hard not knowing what was going on or where they were.”

Edgar

Edgar frequently asked his caseworker to see his brother more often. Photo credit: Laurence Borten

After his father was deported, Edgar Carranza was put in foster care and split from his brother. “As many times as I asked my case manager to set up an appointment for me to actually see my brother, it would always take months just to be able to see him for an hour,” he told Children’s Rights.

CHILDREN’S RIGHTS’ ROLE

“The sheer impact of severing sibling ties can devastate kids,” said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights. “It is unconscionable that systems are denying children the right to be with, or even know, their brothers and sisters.”

An experience Lowry had early in her career became a driving force behind her push for states to preserve sibling relationships. Lowry successfully advocated for Carlos to be moved from a dangerous out-of-state institution. But being in a safer environment didn’t fix everything for the boy. Carlos, who entered foster care at just 13 months old, continued to struggle with his need for a family.

“He truly had nobody,” Lowry said. Shefought for his records, and then located a sister, but visitation was denied.
“For years, he asked me if he could see his family,” Lowry said. “The very idea that he had siblings and never met them tormented him. It was so critically important for him to have that connection.”

Through Children’s Rights work to reform dangerous and dysfunctional foster care systems throughout the country, we have met many youth who say they wish they were closer to their siblings. And we have used comprehensive reform campaigns to ensure more siblings visit each other frequently in foster care and are placed together into the same foster and adoptive homes. In Tennessee alone, the percentage of sibling groups living together in foster care jumped from fewer than 35 percent in 2002 to 81 percent in 2011, thanks to our advocacy.

We also have ensured kids maintain ties to other important people in their lives. Our campaigns make it possible for more children to reside in licensed foster homes with relatives and close family friends, and to be placed closer to home–all factors that help them feel more comfortable and connected.

“THEY ARE… A PART OF EACH OTHER

Alyssa and Deanna

Alyssa and Deanna are together, but are still trying to find their youngest sister.

Deanna and Alyssa were plaintiffs in Children’s Rights’ class action lawsuit, which led to vast improvements in New Jersey’s child welfare system. Even as their siblings were scattered throughout the state, the sisters remained together as they moved through two foster homes and into an adoptive family.

Their parents, Denise and Tim, believe it is best for siblings to be adopted into the same home.Deanna and Alyssa were plaintiffs in Children’s Rights’ class action lawsuit, which led to vast improvements in New Jersey’s child welfare system. Even as their siblings were scattered throughout the state, the sisters remained together as they moved through two foster homes and into an adoptive family.

“They are already a part of each other. Whatever changes they are going to go through in a new home, they will go through together,” Denise said. “They don’t have that sense of being alone.”

The girls told us that they are grateful for each other and for Children’s Rights. Our reform campaign did not seek monetary damages, but it helped the sisters gain something they say is much more important–a permanent, loving family. The girls are growing up side by side. They go to high school, ROTC and martial arts together.

“I am extra thankful that I have Deanna because at least I have one blood related sibling that I know,” Alyssa said.

“I don’t have all my siblings in the same home as me, but at least I have one,” Deanna said.

CR Helps Siblings Maintain Connections in Foster Care

  • Eighty-seven percent of Connecticut foster children lived with their siblings last year, compared to just 57 percent in 2004.
  • In Tennessee, 81 percent of sibling groups lived together in 2011, compared to fewer than 35 percent in 2002.
  • Last year, metro Atlanta, which too often split up siblings prior to Children’s Rights’ case, ensured 81 percent of children entering foster care were in the same homes as their brothers and sisters and 95 percent of required monthly visits occurred between separated siblings.

Learn More

Read additional articles in Notes from the Field, the Children’s Rights Newsletter:
www.childrensrights.org/publications-multimedia/newsletter/