Blood Ties: Protecting the Sibling Bonds of Children in Child Protective Care
Sibling Connections in Foster care
The adverse consequence separation of sibling groups, entering foster care creates, is not thoroughly researched (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). However, anecdotal evidence and intermittent studies support the importance of ensuring continuation of sibling bonds, throughout the child welfare intervention process (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). This paper examines the barriers, laws, and ethical considerations contributing to the large-scale severing of sibling bonds, throughout the child welfare intervention process. Methods of mitigating individual and collective harm, surrounding this important child welfare topic, are also explored.
Keywords: Child protective services (CPS), siblings, biological bonds, foster care, & adoption, ethics, laws, best practice
Blood Ties: Protecting the Sibling Bonds of Children in Care
The fate of children embroiled in child protective interventions is an uncertain one. In FY 2015, 269,509 children entered the US foster care system (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). Approximately 2/3 of the total estimate (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015) have at least one sibling entering care. Federal legislative policies are paving a leadership role when it comes to highlighting the importance of sibling relationships for children involved in state social service structures (Freundlich, 2010). The federal government’s “Fostering Connections Act” mandates states’ accommodation of “reasonable efforts” to preserve sibling relationships, for children in the care and custody of child welfare agencies. Continuation of federal subsidies, supporting child protection organizations, relies upon state compliance with federal regulations (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014). Fostering Connections is broadly defined (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014); leaving the bulk of deciding reasonableness to each state (Freundlich, 2010). However, the effort does promote diligent, systematic conversations surrounding this important child welfare topic.Fostering Connections: Recognizing the Import of Sibling Bonds
The Fostering Connections to Success & Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 is the first federal policy that recognizes the importance of supporting sibling bonds (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014). The mandate obliges states to make reasonable provisions; placing siblings removed from parental custody in the same foster home; unless considerable evidence exists supporting the idea that communal placement is not in the children’s best interest (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014). Further, separation decisions provision children’s right to frequent visitation with brothers/sisters; unless such contact is documented as contrary to any of the children’s best interests (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2014).
The federal stance highlights the import of sibling relationships for children in care. However, it is up to each state to diligently enact laws that honestly support the federal legislation’s stated goals (Freundlich, 2010). Since inception, Fostering Connections has prompted 13 states to pass specific legislation covering the rights of siblings in state care (Freundlich, 2010). Realistically, the chasm between law, policy, and day to day decision-making require court decisions; incumbent to defining reasonableness, as outlined by federal policy.
Delivering on the Promise of Promoting Sibling Bonds.
The success of fostering sibling bonds between children in the care of state-run child welfare agencies rests largely upon the applicable service delivery models that agency heads and case workers practice. When breeches in these standards happen, siblings suffer; losing invaluable connections and jeopardizing lifelong, positive influence on overall outcomes.
The service delivery provided by child welfare auspices encompass a wide range of significant characteristics. Typically, by the time child welfare workers engage with families, preventative and supportive models may have failed. Families do not willingly seek out child protective agencies (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Participation in support/preventative measures are mandated under code of law, prescribing authority to state-run, federally funded child welfare departments (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). If child protective workers suspect that parents’ ability to maintain a marginally adequate setting for children is in question, requirements including intensive family preservation attempts, foster care and residential treatment services for children and parents are established (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). The last rung on the child welfare hierarchy is adoption services (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009); encompassing children whose biological parents’ rights have been terminated by the family courts.
Foster care, Adoption, and Siblings. The child welfare system is beset with competing interests and goals that can adversely impact the outcomes of children placed in its care. On one hand, federal rules seem to demand that states make diligent efforts to facilitate continuation of sibling relationships, throughout the child welfare interventions (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). On the other, federal legislation is often broadly worded; allowing states self-governing policies, concerning this critical social service framework (Freundlich, 2010). Child welfare practice is beholden to a system determined by public opinion, legislative policy, advocacy efforts, and special interest groups (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). With all these competing forces, the import of maintaining children’s familial relationships falls by the wayside.
One cause of disagreement facing caseworkers removing children from homes where parents are suspected of abuse or neglect is the ability or desire of foster care providers to house children coming from the same family (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). The protection of sibling connections is part of intensive family preservation models of service (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Some foster parents’ views on the issue go against federal policy and state mandates. In such cases, workers are expected to find suitable placement in short-periods of time. Children are taken from family homes at odd hours, in a fast-paced scenario. After all, if children require removal from parental custody, ensuring safety becomes a race against time. In many cases, the need for placement outweighs the importance of keeping siblings intact (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). There may be situations where a temporary placement is willing to keep two children from a group of three or the addition of one more child would place the home at the maximum capacity state law dictates (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012) appropriate for housing children in out of home care.
When foster parents are hesitant to take sibling groups, caseworkers must weigh the children’s best interest against the reality of finding stable, temporary placement. Part of the worker’s job rests in advocating for the children’s needs (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Service delivery demands that advocacy (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009) play a role in determining the best emergency shelter options. While convincing a wary foster home that accepting all the children from a family unit may be a time-consuming effort in frustration, it is a necessary portion of advocating for the best interests of the children. Case advocacy places the overall interests of the clients above the semantics involved in easing the job of placement. While it may seem simpler to separate the children when encountering overcrowded placements, reticent foster parents, and time crunches ethics demands that workers champion the rights of clients.
Since the issue of sibling connection spans the entirety of the system and is an ongoing struggle across the field of child protection (McBeath, et al, 2014) ethical guidelines also dictate the use of class advocacy (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009) to address the barriers to meeting the goal of ensuring continuation of sibling interaction, while in state custody. Current systematic reform includes siblings in state care as a special group of children with specific case needs (Children’s Information Gateway, 2012). Unfortunately, most states still struggle to provide continuation of sibling connections, as a child protective case winds its way through the courts (Connecticut Voices for Children, 2012). Estimates establish that approximately 2/3 of children in care will be separated from siblings (McBeath, et al, 2014), at some point, during his/her stay in foster care. Visitation between siblings living in different homes is sporadic (McBeath, et al, 2014), as permanency settlement decisions scatter the group (Patton, 2001) to the winds. Inconsistent facilitation of visits between splintered or split sibling groups often justifies claims that the contact does not serve the children’s best interests (Patton, 2001). The behavioral and emotional issues manifesting in children whose entire lives have been upended is not shocking. Relating this to sibling contact is unfair and is oft abused; permitting ceased contact between brothers and sisters. The misapplication of the loophole regarding diligent efforts, except when it fails to serve the children’s best interest (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012), is appalling. Children living in split or splintered sibling placements report the infrequency and uncertainty surrounding contacts with brothers and sisters (Connecticut Voices for Children, 2012). This systematic failure emotionally damages children. Manifesting in angry outburst, depression, and founded fears; associated with when or if he/she will see siblings again (Connecticut Voices for Children, 2012). The practice in some states of allowing adoptive parents to be the final decision makers in sibling visitation (Patton, 2001) is too often a death knell for this important bond. Adoption laws and frameworks in the sphere of applicable adoption and permanency services are not universally governed (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). Social worker advocacy, on a case by case basis, furthers continuation of sibling contact. Systematic reform participation acknowledges the damage done to groups of children (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012) that face entire families ripped asunder.
Forensic Social Work & Sibling Bonds1
At the beginning of a child protective case resulting in a court order of jeopardy, case workers’ role in service delivery becomes connected to the courts (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Family court judges oversee all cases where children are removed from parental custody (Florida Children First, 2011). The Department of Children & Families (DCF) is represented by the state’s attorney, the children are assigned guardian ad litem to act as a direct advocate for the group’s best interest, and each parent involved is also provided legal counsel (Florida Children First, 2011).
Forensic interview practices are designed as fact-finding missions; supporting the removal necessity and preventing an attack by opposing counsel against social service worker’s methods of gleaning information. (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Interviews with children and parents require that ethical practices be adhered to. All interviewees, to the greatest extent possible, must be informed of his/her rights concerning confidentiality of information shared and the legal limitations attached (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Further, the potential consequences of sharing sensitive information with social service workers should be discussed (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). From discussions with parents and personal experience with DCF investigatory tactics, ethical guidelines are intentionally or inadvertently ignored. Typically happening upon first contact with the family, before a decision to pursue a jeopardy order and child removal is reached. Consent forms and rights disclosures do not enter the equation until court action validates child removal. This corroboration is frequently constructed on the statements made by parents or children, grossly unaware of potential consequences, following revealing evidence to child protective workers.
The misleading manner that many case workers approach investigations signals serious trouble; stalling future collaboration and reunification attempts. Is it any wonder that parents and children, approached by the “kindly” caseworker, and manipulated into describing family problems, would not later trust the intent of the same caseworker? Ethical and legal framework, with the goal of family preservation in mind, demands adherence to guidelines requiring disclosure of rights, prior to forensic interviews. However, these strict principles leave caseworkers with a disclosure based dilemma. Telling families of these rights might put a screeching halt to an intervention, before it can even begin; potentially endangering abused children, in need of care.
Forensic social work extends throughout the entirety of a child protective case; legally limiting the sharing of defining information (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Caseworkers must protect the privacy of all family members involved in CPS cases. The rights of children, to meaningfully access biological siblings freed for adoption, is a conundrum. In many states, the rights of the new adoptive parents supersede all others (Patton, 2001); preventing caseworkers from assisting siblings’ or family members’ attempts to locate an adopted child. (Patton, 2001). This essentially severs any hope of meeting the federal legislation that outlines the importance of maintaining sibling bonds.
Protecting the Sibling Connection in a Managed Care Model of Delivery. Oftentimes, siblings removed from abusive homes develop dysfunctional attachments and behaviors (National Research Council, 1997). When these issues create the potential of continuing harm between siblings, case managers may be warranted in deciding to place the children in separate homes, for the duration of the intervention (Hegar, 2005). However, this does not excuse the full-scale severing of sibling relationships. Instead, facilitating ample chances for the children to visit one another, in a controlled, therapeutic setting, is advisable (Hegar, 2005). Commissioning a counselor, specializing in sibling dysfunction and family therapy, is supportive. Counselor have the expertise necessary to ensure that the siblings learn healthy behaviors and boundaries (National Research Council, 1997). Such stipulations act as control mechanisms on the relationship. Since the value of brother/sister connections is well established (Hegar, 2005), both case and class advocacy demand that social workers diligently protect and scrutinize all viable avenues of preserving sibling associations.
The introduction of managed care service delivery methods into child welfare is a catastrophe. Barriers to mental health treatment services for families are listed as contributing to the necessity of child protective service’s interventions (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Managed care plans restrict recommended mental health treatment services; detrimentally effecting permanency planning and often underlying initial state interference, into families (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Limitations on the number of sessions allowable, hardly make it feasible for complex sibling issues to be ironed out in the counseling relationship. Further, this method promotes lack of continued contact for siblings exhibiting maladaptive behaviors during or after interactions.
Therapists are helpful moderators during redevelopment of healthy familial connections (National Research Council, 1997). The emotional complexities facing children from abusive backgrounds make managed care highly ineffective (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). Further, managed care places case workers in a precarious ethical dilemma (Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2009). The National Association of Social Worker’s Code of Ethics demands that social service professionals, “should terminate services to clients & professional relationships with them when such services and relationships are no longer required or no longer serve the client’s needs or interests” (National Association of Social Workers (NASW), 2015). Addendum B of this section begins with the wording, “social workers should take reasonable steps to avoid abandoning clients who are still in need of services” (NASW, 2015).
These provisions are not conducive to managed care mode of service. In fact, the stipulations are quite contrary to this framework. As ongoing therapy is an irreplaceable component of fostering continuation of sibling bonds, managed care is the enemy. Such time-constraints force provider abandonment, at vital points in the therapeutic rapport; causing acute psychological damage to vulnerable sibling groups (Downs, Moore McFadden, 2009). Caseworkers seeking to guarantee the best outcomes and properly carry-out efficacious case advocacy should fight the ending of such vital services. A task easier said than done in the realm of DCF. Competing interests are centerstage; sacrificing children’s well-being by favoring monetary, bottom-line agendas.
Legal guidelines, ethical protocol, and best practice. Child Protective Services divisions across the nation are tasked with a singularly heart-rending duty; authorizing removal of children from parental care, in cases where a civil investigation and family court jeopardy order substantiate child abuse or neglect. Federal laws minimally quantify child abuse and neglect issues. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g), as amended by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010, marginally describes child abuse and neglect as, “any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm" (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.). CAPTA outlines explicit defining characteristics of cases meeting the qualifications for consideration in sexual abuse or medical neglect situations (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.); stopping short of plainly defining other kinds of maltreatment. Physical and/or emotional abuse laws or standards equaling parental negligence vary widely, from state to state. Acceptance of federal funding for child protective initiatives, permits states’ creation and enforcement of distinct civil and criminal standards, signifying child abuse/neglect (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d). Lack of conformity bleeds into policies, ethics, and legislative actions, dictating treatment of children, amid social service interventions. What one state deems appropriate case action, another might not.
What is a “Sibling?” That Depends on Who You Ask.
In an age where blended families are common, defining the sibling relationship becomes a challenging proposition. Younger children rarely recognize sibling relationships as those requiring blood-relatedness. Legal and practice framework further muddy the ability to clarify brother/sister ties. Terminology springing up among child welfare advocates acknowledges less traditional relationships between children that mirror sibling bonds. “Fictive kin” describes developing ties between children, where no legal or biological framework exists (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Legislative policy action requires strict adherence to qualifiers constituting sibling relationships (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). These include children sharing at least one biological parent or having been raised by the same adoptive parents.
From Removal to Permanency: Siblings Lost. For most sibling groups, brother/sister ties are lifelong bonds; enhancing trust, socialization, love, and resiliency (Scharf, 2015). The sibling bond is a singularly unique family tie. Brothers and sister relations have been studied at great length (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). Matters concerning birth order and personality traits come to mind. For most, siblings are first friends, first rivals, and share a history and family story that strangers have no part of (Scharf, 2015). This tie is distinct from parental relations with individual children. It consists of a common story, resemblances, and secrets not shared with outsiders, or even parents. Each sibling relationship is different than another. Individual siblings from large families can identify which brother/sister he/she was closest to or had the most conflict with; which sibling was more the caretaker of the rest and what characteristics are common and different for every child in the family unit.
The import of sibling connections is a well-known, widely studied phenomenon (Scharf, 2015). However, it was not until the 1990’s that state child welfare efforts acknowledged the import of maintaining sibling bonds (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). State courts and lawmakers initiated actions designed to ensure visits and communal placements, whenever feasible, for siblings removed from parental custody (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). By 2004, child welfare reviews stressed the import of achieving common foster homes for siblings entering care (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Sibling placement and visitation statutes materialized in approximately half the states by 2005 (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Federal legislation finally addressed the need of state welfare agencies to promote sibling relationships in its 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). At the beginning of a child protective case removal, federal standards decree that bonds between siblings be considered in emergency shelter decision-making and that reasonable efforts occur that house siblings in the same location (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, & McFadden, 2008). However, a legislative addendum provides leeway. Caseworkers can place siblings in different homes, if the state documents that shared settlement would be contrary to the best interests or safety of one or all the siblings (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, & McFadden, 2008). For siblings not placed together, Addendum B of the federal legislation stipulates that frequent visitation and interaction should occur, unless the state documents that such visits are not in the child/children’s best interests (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, & McFadden, 2008).
Oftentimes, conflictual interests and practices prevent the joint placement of sibling groups entering care (Fostering Together, 2013). The importance of sibling attachments is one only recently recognized across the child welfare hemisphere. While 80-90% of children removed from biological parents through a child protective case intervention have siblings (Schuerger, 2002) statistics stipulate that as little as 25% of these children are even mostly placed in the same homes (Schuerger, 2002), after removal from biological families.
Reasons for failing adherence to legal, ethical, and best practice policies, encouraging common placement of siblings in foster care, vary. Often, it is simply a matter of semantics (Fostering Together, 2013). Foster providers are licensed to house a set number of children (Fostering Together, 2013). If a sibling group exceeds this number, necessity commands separation. Further, some homes specialize in the care of certain age children (Fostering Together, 2013). In sibling groups with widely divergent ages, older and younger siblings will not be housed together. Further, caseworkers may take pains to place children of a similar age together (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013); never considering the scope of the relationships, and the differences in attachments, between brothers and sisters, of all ages.
As children languish in care, reunification with biological parents becomes less likely. Federal law changed the amount of time granted parents to pursue and meet case goals for reunification efforts from 3 years to a mere one year standard (Thomas, 2010). In some cases, the one year cap can be extended for an additional 6-month term (Thomas, 2010); allowing a parent to complete case planning goals listed in the family service plan. Time is the enemy of reunification efforts. It is also not the friend of continuation of sibling associations. Even siblings that entered care together, face the probability of becoming separated (Scharf, 2015), as reunification efforts shift toward permanency planning.
The best and most ethical interests of children are met when caseworkers diligently pursue kinship care options for sibling groups (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Actual family members of the children concerned are more inclined to accept all the children involved in the case (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Even in scenarios where family members cannot take all the children, different relative placements are more apt, than non-familial options, to ensure that biological family contact is preserved, throughout the protective case action. Several states require that diverse relative placements continue contact between dissimilarly homed children, post adoption (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2015). These laws do not require the same of non-kinship, adoptive parents (Scharf, 2015); efficiently signaling the end of one family unit and the beginning of another.
For states to receive federal funding for child welfare programs, preference must be given to relative caregivers when a child is removed from a parent’s custody (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Title IV-E of the Social Security Act requires that social services “consider giving preference to an adult relative over a nonrelated caregiver when determining placement for a child, provided that the relative caregiver meets all relevant State child protection standards” (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013) Title IV-E mandates the exercise of “due diligence” (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013) by state agents in locating and informing relatives that a child has been or will be placed in the care and custody of the state. In 33 states, biological parents may opt to place children with a relative caregiver before the onset of a court-ordered finding of jeopardy (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). This streamlines the placement process; avoiding mandatory home studies and relative caregiver background checks, court ordered after a jeopardy finding is adjudicated.
Children freed for adoption, living in kinship care, evidence stronger ability to continue important family connections (Shwartz, 2002). Ethically, the best interests of the children are served by seeking to keep siblings within the biological family structure (Schwartz, 2002). No states have laws forcing adoptive parents to continue visits between siblings remaining in care (Scharf, 2015).
Generally, the United States constitution is mute when addressing issues pertaining to children’s rights (Scharf, 2015). The document offers few tips easing the decisions facing family court judges, nationwide. The Supreme Court has handled some issues relating to family rights (Scharf, 2015). However, the court has yet to deal directly with the rights of siblings taken into state care (Scharf, 2015). The fourteenth amendment’s due process clause favors parents’ fundamental rights to raise children without state interference, except in cases where a parent is deemed incapable of protecting and providing care for the child (Scharf, 2015).
The Fourteenth amendment protections extend to adoptive parents, as well (Scharf, 2015). Children adopted by non-related persons, are lawfully the offspring of the adoptive parents. This affords adoptive parents discretion in decisions regarding who will and will not have continued contact with the adopted child (Scharf, 2015). This provision ostensibly includes biological brothers and sisters, not adopted by the parents in question. While the right to raise one’s child free of unwarranted state intervention is considered fundamental by supreme court rulings (Scharf, 2015), it is also clear that states may infringe upon this right (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2008), in certain circumstances.
Common law standards declare third party visitation to have no legal standing (Scharf, 2015). However, individual courts reaction to third party suits regarding visitation rights to minor children are mixed (Scharf, 2015). Detractors of rulings forcing parents to abide third party visitation orders complain that the court’s rulings are based in “function, not form” (Scharf, 2015) Instead of adhering to the premise that parenthood is a status derived from biology and legality, the court’s stance opines that parenting is a functional status (Scharf, 2015). By the mid-1990’s all states provisioned rights of grandparents to visit children (Scharf, 2015); superseding parental whim. Conversely, the same courts refused to grant standing to other adult attachment figures (Scharf, 2015). This included children’s step-parents and other adult relatives, besides grandparents.
Even states promoting third party visitation, above the objections of biological parents, lost ground because of one broadly worded statute in Washington State. Troxell v Granville overrode biological parental rights to limitation of visits between a child and grandparent (Scharf, 2015). The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, based on the fourteenth amendment due process clause (Scharf, 2015). However, it was not this clause that caused the Washington statute to be overturned. Instead, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, cited the terms and wording of the state law (Scharf, 2015). The overly-broad terminology permitted anyone to sue a parent in state court (Scharf, 2015), requesting that a judge order third party visitation rights. The verbiage was not clear or concisely worded. Regardless, the court’s decision in Troxell saw many states completely repeal individual third-party visitation laws (Scharf, 2015). This gun shy, legislative fear, of civil rights based litigation ended third-party standing in lower state courts.
Protections granted biological parents and adopted parents are identical. The courts and constitution recognizes the right to exercise control over one’s child as almost sacrosanct (Scharf, 2015). Some state laws have added provisions allowing adopted and biological parents to enter post-adoption visitation agreements (Scharf, 2015), but there are few means to resolve conflicts, if portions of such voluntary orders are breeched. Many of these orders fail to list sibling visitation rights in the requirements (Scharf, 2015). Further, even states granting judges latitude in ordering post-adoption sibling visitation, stop short of doing so without the express agreement and willingness of adopted parents (Scharf, 2015).
The Troxell decision was a blow directly at the heart of children’s rights to a continuation of relationships with siblings. Many adopted parents, legislators, case workers, and family courts prefer to continue the pretense of closed adoptions with children adopted from state custody. This, despite these children being older and aware of the existence of biological family systems. Despite best practice that admits the damage done to children that lose contact with siblings through adoption (Schuerger, 2002), most states still place the rights of adopted parents over those of disenfranchised siblings. Even the 2008 federal legislation leaves the question of sibling contact after adoption open for individual interpretation.
Legally speaking, the rights of possible adopted parents are not all encompassing (Scharf, 2015). Unlike natural procreation and child rearing, the issue of adoption is not considered to be a matter of unquestionable, individual liberty. Lower federal courts have ruled that potential adoptive parents’ interest in a child are not a fundamental right (Scharf, 2015). The fourteenth amendment protects legal parents from intrusive state interventions (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2008). It does not protect those wishing to adopt a child from adhering to or agreeing to applicable state law prior to finalization of an adoption. This leaves an in-road for children’s advocates to push for legal provisions; protecting the rights of children, exiting foster care, into adopted families. The best interests of the child purely govern adoptions (Scharf, 2015). Therefore, state laws could feasibly require sibling visitation as a requirement of the finalized adoption order.
Justly applying sociological and psychological power, bestowed child welfare designees.
Caseworkers hold an inordinate amount of power over family outcomes. The sociological designation of authority allows him/her to demand compliance from parents facing child protective investigations and abuse allegations (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, & McFadden, 2008). By its nature, child welfare is an adversarial system (Thomas, 2010); dictating cooperation from parents, not inviting government intrusion into the family sphere. The psychological underpinnings of this authority require that caseworkers seek cooperative relationships (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2008) with parents, children, service providers, foster/adoptive parents, and the courts.
When applied to decisions regarding the best interests of sibling groups, social workers wield far more influence over outcomes that most recognize. Best practice and ethics do not typically begin as a matter of law. Instead, these are derived from trial and error and witnessing, fist-hand, the outcomes of dependent clients in the child welfare system. It is only later, through advocacy efforts, that social workers have the power to help change legal standards.
Foremost, the needs of the children must remain at the vanguard of child protective practice. Interventions are designed to foster safety and positive outcomes for the children involved (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2008). While removal from an abusive family situation may seem to be the beginning and end of the worker’s expertise, this is far from the truth. The worker, given authority by the state, now has the power to place each child in a foreign environment, filled with strangers. The way a worker approaches preservation of sibling bonds at the beginning of a case can alter the course of the children’s lives, once child welfare services ends its involvement.
The practice of social work in child welfare dictates that workers gather information about the family to ensure beneficial case management decisions (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2008). This information gathering should include assessments of sibling relationships, prior to making emergency shelter provisions (Schuerger, 2002). While the best outcome typically rests in placing children entering foster care in the same home with brothers/sisters (Schuerger, 2002), this is not always a feasible alternative (Fostering Together, 2013). In large sibling groups, assessment of sibling bonds will identify which siblings share the greatest connection (Schuerger, 2002). This one practice decision could guarantee that the children continue to have the same support network established in the biological family structure.
Siblings entering care and leaving abusive parenting practices rely on each other to provide emotional, physical, and psychological succor (Scharf, 2015), in the face of abuse and adversity. Deciphering which members of the sibling group are most reliant on another informs placement decisions. Some case workers assume it is best to place siblings closest in age together, while fostering older youth in different homes (Schuerger, 2002). This could not be further from the truth. Older siblings often assume the role of parent to younger children in abusive homes (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). Studies show that younger children seeking aid, advice or comfort favor going to an older sibling, when a mother is not available (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013).
Oftentimes, foster parents’ preconceptions prescribe separation of sibling groups (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013). This should never be the case. Foster providers should be educated on the value of sibling relationships by caseworkers and agency heads (Schuerger, 2002). Awareness of the inherent damage created by sibling separation should be a key focus when applying this type of psychological authority. Practice should also denote attempts to establish specific homes equipped to take large sibling groups (Schuerger, 2002). Such efforts unite policy, ethics, practice, and law.
The use of sibling rivalry or dependence, to rationalize prevention of contact between brothers/sisters, is not best practice (Schuerger, 2002). Instead, it indorses the falsehood that siblings entering care are better off not having contact with one another (Scharf, 2015). The sibling relationship is the most longstanding tie people will ever encounter. It is the proving ground for attaining appropriate social skills, cooperation, problem-solving, resiliency, and love (Fostering Together, 2013). People benefitting from close connections with siblings have more success in adulthood than those deprived of contact with biological brothers/sisters (Scharf, 2015). For kids entering care, the sibling bond may be the only nurturing, safe, and constant relationship formulated (Schuerger, 2002). Children count on on caseworkers’ skill and competency to advocate for continuation of contact with brothers and sisters. Expediency, ease of placement, and baseless foster provider stereotypes should never deter a worker from striving to promote sibling networks. Because caseworkers are considered experts in the best interests of children, this proficiency is a powerful weapon in the fight to ensure communal placements and continuation of contact between siblings disconnected by child protective actions.
Advocacy. Changing hearts, minds, & law. Human service professionals are designated advocates for people existing as underserved classes in our society (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2008). This premise could not be truer than when considering the rights of sibling groups entering foster care and later freed for adoption. Caseworker proficiency grants the unique ability to influence law makers’ positions on issues pertaining to children in care. Social workers are ethically bound by guidelines that demand advocacy participation (Whitelaw-Downs, Moore, McFadden, 2008). It is not enough to apply best practice and current law, when determining outcomes for individual cases. The expertise of child protective workers is a necessary component in the process of affecting systematic change.
Caseworkers have a duty to past, present, and future clients that are tossed about the welfare system. The perspectives of social workers can change longstanding myths surrounding adoption and permanency issues for children in care. The era of secretive adoptions is still adversely affecting the outcomes of sibling groups, nationwide. This is unacceptable. Everything that social workers stand for rests on the principles of fighting to achieve what is best for all children trapped within the child protective safety net. No child should be required to sever his natural affinity for his siblings of origin, to secure an adoptive home. It is an ethically and morally bankrupt portion of the child protective system, that is screaming for advocacy movements and legislative policy revolution.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2012). Sibling issues in foster care & adoption. Retrieved from Children’s Bureau/ACYF website: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/siblingissues.pdf
Children's Bureau. (n.d.). Definitions of child abuse & neglect in federal law. Retrieved June 4, 2017, from https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/can/defining/federal/
Children's Bureau, & Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013, June). Placement of Children with Relatives. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/placement.pdf
Connecticut Voices for Children. (2012). Testimony supporting S.B. 156: An act concerning sibling visitation for children in the care and custody of the commissioner of children and families and H.B. 5186: An act adopting a foster parent bill of rights. Retrieved from http://www.ctvoices.org/sites/default/files/022812_sb156_hb5186_children_DCFsiblings_fosterparents.pdf
Fosteringtogetehr.org. (2013). Sibling need flyer (Rep.). Fosteringtogether.org. doi:http://fosteringtogether.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Sibling-Need-Flyer-for-website_6.20.13.pdf
Freundlich, M. (2010). Legislative strategies to safely reduce the number of children in foster care (978-1-58024-604-0). Retrieved from The National Conference of State Legislatures website: http://www.ncsl.org/documents/cyf/strategies_reducing_the_number_of_children_in_foster_care.pdf
Florida Children First. (2011). Dependency cases, step by step. Poster session presented at Florida Children First, St. Petersburg. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/lisa/Downloads/Dependency%20Cases%20101%20-%20Step%20by%20StepBW.ppt.pdf
McBeath, B., Kothari, B. H., Blakeslee, J., Lamson-Siu, E., Bank, L., Linares, L. O., … Shlonsky, A. (2014). Intervening to improve outcomes for siblings in foster care: Conceptual, substantive, and methodological dimensions of a prevention science framework. Children and Youth Services Review, 39, 1-10. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2013.12.004
National Organization for Human Service. (2015). Ethical Standards for HS Professionals. Retrieved from http://www.nationalhumanservices.org/ethical-standards-for-hs-professionals
National Research Council (U.S.). (1997). Interventions & treatment. In Understanding child abuse and neglect (pp. 253-291). Retrieved from https://www.nap.edu/read/2117/chapter/9#254
Scharf, R. (2015, Winter). Separated at Adoption: Addressing the Challenges of Maintaining Sibling-of-Origin Bonds in Postadoption Families [Scholarly project]. In UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law. Retrieved from http://scholars.law.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1952&context=facpub
Schuerger, K. (2002). INFORMATION PACKET Siblings in Foster Care (pp. 1-18, Publication). New York, NY: NRCFCPP. doi:http://www.hunter.cuny.edu/socwork/nrcfcpp/downloads/information_packets/siblings-pkt.pdf
Schwartz, A. E. (2002). Societal Value and the Funding of Kinship Care. Social Service Review,76(3), 430-459. doi:10.1086/341183
Thomas, R. (2010). Reunification plans: Recipes for failure (Publication). Lifting the Veil. doi:http://liftingtheveil.org/reunificationplans.htm
Whitelaw Downs, S., Moore, E., & McFadden, E. (2009). Child welfare & family services: Policies & practice (8th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education Inc.
What are your opinions on the efficacy of the current child protective system
Child Welfare Facts
- 269,509 children entered the US foster care system in 2015
- 2/3 of children have at least one sibling also entering care
- Many foster-parents are ill-equipped to house sibling groups
- 2/3 of children with siblings that enter foster care will face temporary or permanent separation from brothers/sisters