The longest relationship

Children in out-of-home care often have uniquely strong sibling relationships. This article looks at some of the reasons siblings are separated and ways sibling relationships can be maintained and nurtured while children are in out-of-home care.

By Dr. Trish McCluskey, Berry Street

Almost all of us have one, or more. Sometimes we wish we hadn’t and then we cannot imagine our lives without them. Remember primary school? We fight with them, they fight with us and then we fight for them.

Siblings: our closest genetic relative, our soulmates, rivals for parental affections, the keepers of our unembellished history.

For children in out-of-home care and indeed for all of us, our siblings are usually the longest relationship of our lives. Sometimes these are close and loving relationships and other times they are not. Interestingly even fraught sibling relationships can often be repaired and research shows siblings being identified as major supports as we get older.

Why then do sibling relationships seem to be so underestimated and overlooked for children in foster, kinship or residential care?

This is particularly worrying as children who have suffered abuse often have uniquely strong sibling relationships, marked by inter-dependence, strong identification and loyalty and they may be one another’s primary attachment figures. We now know that those strong and sometimes difficult sibling relationships need to be carefully nurtured and respected. Post-care and as older adults it is siblings who are the most likely support for young people from out-of-home care.

Benefits of sibling co-placement (where possible)

  1. There is greater placement stability when siblings (some or all) are placed together.
  2. When siblings are placed together there is increased attachment to carers noted.
  3. Children and young people report decreased grief and loss reactions when placed with their siblings.
  4. Children, especially older girls, are assessed as having better mental health outcomes when placed with their siblings.
  5. Siblings are a major source of post-care support.

When siblings cannot be together it is vital that carers and staff ensure that they have opportunities for visits, contact and open communication. This helps to avoid the negative consequences reported by siblings from both historical separations such as the Stolen Generations, Forgotten Australians and child ‘migrants’ and those of siblings today. These separations can result in a lifetime of grief and wondering, feelings of lost identity, loss of family continuity. When sibling contact is sporadic or non-existent, sibling relationships may wither.

Why siblings are sometimes separated in care

We intuitively know that siblings are a special and important relationship. Yet when children come into out-of-home care, or while in care, they may be placed apart or separated. Sometimes this is absolutely necessary. Sometimes it is not. Every time it has important consequences for the sibling relationship.

Systems or practice issues that impact on sibling separation

  • Lack of resources and supports for carers to take on sibling groups or pairs.
  • Limited understanding about the importance of the sibling relationship.
  • Siblings may be separated for what seem to be good reasons but actually need context. For example some children have developed adaptive behaviours in the context of abuse and neglect but these are no longer helpful or appropriate.
  • Unconscious pathologising and stigma attached to sibling’s behaviour in care. This can happen when case managers forget that ALL children fight, argue, compete for attention etc.
  • Siblings’ best interests and rights are not articulated clearly in our legislation. These interests may come a poor second to (lack of) resources. Interestingly in both the UK and particularly the USA, siblings’ rights are strongly advocated for and in some states enshrined in a Sibling Bill of Rights.
  • Siblings often have different case planners or managers so that contact may be different from one planner to another. In this situation, siblings’ history is easily lost.
  • Sibling contact is sometimes seen as a reward, not a need and a right.

Behavioural and other issues which may mean separation

  • Sibling problem sexual behaviour: this can often be understood and worked with using a developmental and trauma approach.
  • Sibling rivalry and the context of being in care. What’s OK and what’s not.
  • “Parentification”: is this adaptive behaviour?
  • Sibling relationship is re-traumatising: history repeating itself.
  • Sibling roles are entrenched: the victim and the aggressor, “Dad’s favourite” etc.
  • Scapegoating: it’s all about YOU!
  • Siblings have vastly different needs.
  • Siblings don’t like each other.

What carers and staff can do to keep siblings together or connected

The best thing that carers and staff can do is to recognise the importance of sibling relationships for children in out-of-home care. This doesn’t mean that the siblings have to like one another. Nor does it mean that saying they don’t like a sibling is reason for separation or no contact. Like all human relationships, siblings have times of feeling ambivalent, angry, indifferent, loving or loyal towards each other. The longevity of the sibling relationship over all of these times is what helps to makes the bond enduring.

Some of the following may help

  • Keep the end game in mind: most sibling behaviour will normalise with maturity.
  • Insist on additional support if needed to care for siblings.
  • Try to understand sibling rivalry or hostility from a developmental and adaptive context.
  • Understanding attachment driven behaviour helps explain a lot.
  • Ensure you have a break or respite.
  • Therapeutic sibling work: ask for referrals.
  • Insist that siblings in your care have time together: visits, camps, same school if possible, outings etc.
  • Let siblings maintain their rituals, for example room sharing.
  • Allow siblings to have frequent contact including visits, phone, and if mature enough, email, Skype, Facetime.
  • When siblings can’t live together, let them make or buy transitional objects to help keep their siblings in mind. For younger children this could be a loom band bracelet or special photo. For older children it could be a photo for their wallet or a ring.

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