Picture this: It’s midnight. A northeast breeze barely makes a dent in the humidity that has capped a day of soaring August temperatures.
Three little kids – ages 1½, 3 and 5 – are hiding in a bathtub while police with dogs search the second floor flophouse where their mother has been squatting, desperately trying to avoid the Care and Protection action ordered by a juvenile court judge.
The children’s panic increases as they hear footsteps in the hall outside the door. A policewoman enters, and draws back the torn plastic liner.
One by one, the terrified siblings are removed and placed into a waiting squad car wearing only their pajamas. In the chaos of their removal, their meager belongings have been left behind, including a doll, a favorite stuffed animal and a blankie.
It’s the last time the children will live with their birth family. It is also the last time these three young siblings will live together. Placing three kids into a suitable and available foster home on an emergency basis is hard enough; it’s virtually impossible to do so in the middle of the night. The two older children, a sister and brother, are taken to an agency shelter, while the youngest child is placed with a foster family.
In child welfare, splitting up siblings is called sibling separation. The trauma of being removed from their birth home is compounded by the trauma of breaking up the most primal relationship in the family setting – the sibling bond.
Over the next year, the separated siblings see each other only at irregularly scheduled parent-child visitations set up by the Department of Children and Families. Due to ongoing parental substance abuse issues and incarceration, as well as a fractured extended family network, the court orders that the children’s plan be changed from reunification with the birth family - or even kinship adoption - to permanency through foster care adoption.
Further, the juvenile court judge accepts the recommendation from the children’s court-appointed attorney that the sibling separation is in the “best interests of the children.” With that ruling, the last opportunity for the siblings to be reunited evaporates.
My spouse, Snip, and I are given preadoptive custody of the two older children, Karla and Bryan, as an emergency placement after their fifth foster home in nine months basically evicts them from her care. The toddler, JR, continues his preadoptive path with his foster family.
Eventually, the parental rights are terminated, and the children are legally freed for adoption by our respective families. The separation that began the night of removal is now codified by law. The children may be heart and blood siblings, but legally, they are no longer related. Worse, the new families may not be required to maintain the sibling connection. Even if a judge orders sibling visits, compliance is hard to monitor or enforce.
Sadly, Karla, Bryan and JR’s story is not that unusual. Studies recently cited by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, an information service under the U.S. Children’s Bureau of the Department of Health and Human Services, estimates that “two-thirds of children in foster care in the United States have a sibling also in care.”
Similar numbers are found in the United Kingdom’s child welfare system. The report, “Torn Apart,” by Siblings Together Charity, an advocacy group that works to strengthen relationships for siblings in public care, says that “7 out of every 10 children placed in care, who have brothers and sisters, will be separated from them simply because they have been placed in care” (italics added).
Social science research has found that children who are separated from their siblings are at higher risk of negative life outcomes such as behavior problems, lower academic performance and poor mental health.
“When we split up foster children from their brothers and sisters, we are taking away the only connection they still have to the people they love. The pain literally drives children crazy,” said Gordon Johnson of the Jane Addams Hull House Association, in the National Center for Youth Law report.
Yet, despite demonstrated harm, sibling separation in foster care remains a widespread, troubling and largely unregulated practice in child welfare.
Fortunately, public policy and legislation is beginning to address the problem of sibling separation in the child welfare system. In 2012, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families signed a Sibling Bill of Rights, affirming the right of every foster child to be placed with their siblings.
This nonbinding declaration was recently supplanted by the passage by the Massachusetts Senate of Bill S. 2257, that calls on the state’s child welfare agency to keep siblings together after they are placed in its custody.
Nine years after that terrifying night, Karla, Bryan and JR live the daily reality of sibling separation. As parents to these children, our two families have worked hard to maintain and grow the bonds between the birth siblings. They spend summers and alternating holidays together. We’re not bound by any judicial decree to maintain contact between the kids; we do it because they love and miss each other. More importantly, we do it because – as much as possible - they deserve to grow up together.
Even so, the pain of not being together festers. In 2nd-grade, our son, Bryan, wrote an in-school essay about how much he missed JR. In just 100 words, an older brother gives voice to the hope of every kid from foster care separated from their sibling: that this heartbreaking practice must end.