Revisiting the Presumption of Jointly Placing Siblings in Foster Care

Until fairly recently, it was assumed that when parents divorced and custody was being assigned, it was in the child’s best interest to be placed with the mother. It took time and some tragic and avoidable situations to inform policy makers that this blanket assumption should be rebuttable—if a presumption at all. We have now come to a similar crossroad involving the placement of children in foster care.

There is a presumption in law and policy that it is in the best interest of children going into foster care that they be placed together with their siblings. We address the strength of this assumption and propose that, while children may have sibling relationships lasting longer than relationships with partners, parents, or children, the presumption that keeping siblings together is always best should be carefully evaluated to take individual circumstances into consideration.

Rivalry and violence between siblings are unfortunate realities that must be considered when determining what would truly be in the best interest of the children.

We begin by presenting an overview of the scope and magnitude of the issue. Following this introduction, we provide an overview of states’ laws and policies concerning the placement of siblings in foster care. This is followed by a review of relevant federal laws and programs, followed by a brief case study and analysis. The last section of this article reviews some recent studies and theories that can help inform practitioners in the child welfare system.

In the United States, the proportion of children that did not live with two married parents in 2012 was 36 percent. An estimated 424,000 children were living in foster care in the last quarter of 2009. Further, an estimated two-thirds of children in out-of-home care have siblings, and of those, 30 percent entering foster care have four or more siblings.

“The majority of child welfare professionals strongly support the idea that keeping siblings together is in their best interest, in most circumstances[,]” and have historically advocated placing them together.

There are surely benefits in many cases to placing siblings together. When early sibling bonds are positive, they then can serve as foundations for later relationships. Siblings who have been placed together in foster homes were reported to have fewer emotional and behavioral problems than those who were placed alone, and studies have shown that siblings placed together stay in one placement longer and experience fewer moves in the foster care system.

As discussed in the cases and policies section of this article, other reasons for keeping siblings together include maintaining attachment to and connectedness with family members, the preference of the children, emotional support, strong ties that may have developed due to shared experiences in a dysfunctional home, and the ease of visitation with birth parents.

However, other considerations should equally play a role in the determination of whether siblings should be placed together. Sometimes there are factors at play that have more to do with the process than the children themselves.

Some such factors preventing the placement of siblings together include a lack of resources, a large number of cases per caseworker, and the need to quickly find appropriate placements for children whose families have entered a period of crisis. Also, there is the constant challenge of finding an adequate number of foster parents. When sibling sets are large it is often difficult to find available foster homes that are large enough, and it may be more important to get the children placed in a safe and secure setting rather than delaying a placement in order to keep the sibling set together.

There is little consensus concerning the advantages or disadvantages of keeping sibling sets together in foster care placements. One study author reported that “[o]f children who enter foster care, research into placement outcome reports comparatively favorable adjustment for those placed with siblings.” Another article reports that children placed with siblings displayed fewer behavioral problems and had fewer previous placements.

Even though research has found that relationships with brothers and sisters are often highly valued, a review of research for its guidance on fostering did not find conclusive evidence that placing siblings together improves their outcomes during or after placement. And a psychotherapist reported that foster children separated from their siblings exhibited fewer psychological symptoms in placement and that separated siblings had better school performance. Further, he noted that other researchers reported that foster mothers perceived foster children in sibling groups as having more difficulty adjusting to a new foster placement than single foster children separated from their siblings.

Other potential disadvantages for the insistence on maintaining sibling groups include placement difficulties, lack of resources, lack of foster families prepared to take large sibling sets, and conflict between the siblings.

With respect to the children, broad age ranges can make it difficult to meet the children’s disparate needs in the same setting, and strong sibling rivalry can make siblings too difficult to manage in one placement. Further, it has been reported that sibling separation could in fact lead to improved sibling relationships in certain cases.

Separation has been shown to ease conflict and sibling rivalry between children, while visitation allows for increased positive interactions. It is also beneficial for the siblings to be placed separately when one or more of them have special needs. Siblings placed together can reinforce behavioral problems that are used as coping mechanisms in an abusive home. It is often easier to place individual children for adoption than to search for a home that will take the entire sibling group, which delays permanency for each child and works to the detriment of the siblings in the long run.

In situations where siblings are raised in separate households, they may not know of their brothers or sisters. Thus, prioritizing joint placement based on a theory of maintaining close sibling relationships may not be rationally based, and it is sometimes the children themselves who request separation. Other situations where separation should be considered include instances of violent behavior—which may include emotional, physical, or sexual abuse—occurring within the sibling set. This will be explored in more depth later in this article.

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