Stopping the separation of siblings
Hailey, Dustee and Annabelle entered foster care in 2012. The three sisters were placed into an emergency foster home where they stayed for one week. After that, they were separated.
At the time, Hailey was 5, Dustee 4 and Annabelle 2. They were told their behaviors were too much for one foster home to handle so it would be easier to split them up. Hailey stayed at the first foster home while Dustee and Annabelle were moved. They would not be reunited for another two months.
In total, the girls would spend a combined 1,423 days in foster care. For the remainder of their time in the system, they lived in almost daily fear of being moved to different homes again. They felt a continuous stress about potentially having to say goodbye to each other again.
The act of entering foster care is traumatic. Many children have just been removed from unsafe environments where abuse or neglect occurred. Their futures are uncertain as they enter the home of a stranger who they do not know or trust.
Like Hailey, Dustee and Annabelle, this traumatic experience is made many times worse when a child is separated from their siblings. In Oregon, the primary goal for child welfare caseworkers is to remove children from unsafe and harmful environments. This is an immediate decision that happens in less than a day. Keeping siblings together is a secondary priority.
Unfortunately, a deficit of foster parents across the state numbers in the thousands. The lack of homes means it is rare to find long-term placements for more than one child. It can take weeks or even months before children can be reunited.
Tragically, understaffed child welfare departments can lead to separated siblings being forgotten. Most caseworkers have caseloads that are more than double the recommended amount. With so many cases, state employees are not able to devote enough time to figure out ways of preventing the separation of siblings or assist with reuniting siblings.
Data on sibling separations is unsettling. According to the child welfare advocacy organization Adopt Us Kids, roughly 75 percent of children in foster care have at least one sibling that is also in care. Of these children, more than 65 percent will be separated at some point.
Already lacking information about what happens next, the tolls these separations have on children can make it more difficult to find long-term solutions. Children experience fear and panic when they are separated. Losing a sibling can cause children to feel like they have lost control over their life. These feelings usually turn into rage and anger as outbursts become common.
A vicious cycle is set in motion where children can’t be reunited because of their behaviors. The inability to be reunited makes these behaviors worse. Eventually, caseworkers determine it will be easier to find separate families rather than keep siblings together. They grow up feeling like distant cousins. In some cases, they never see each other again.
At Boys & Girls Aid, our focus is to keep siblings together. With over 134 years of experience, we have learned that it takes more than just finding a stable and safe home for a child. The damage caused by separating kids out of convenience can be lifelong.
Our commitment to siblings means investing time and resources. We recruit and certify foster homes that can take more than one youth at a time. We work directly with the state of Oregon to advocate for siblings and address the need to find one single family. We sit on committees, sub-committees and steering committees to make sure the practice of separating siblings is reduced. We find families who have the skills to adopt and support siblings.
Of the children we worked with in 2018, roughly 50% were kids with one or more sibling in foster care. Many had experienced a separation from their sibling or at one point were at-risk of being permanently separated.
Through the work of Boys & Girls Aid, each child we serve is now ensured the lifelong bond of growing up with their siblings. This means they have permanently exited foster care together to a loving and supportive family.
For Hailey, Dustee and Annabelle, we helped ensure they went to a family together. Adam and Caitlin Hennebeck came to Boys & Girls Aid wanting to adopt from foster care. Through training and support, they saw that it was possible to be a forever family for all three siblings. In 2015, their adoption was finalized.
Today, the girls have spent three years together. The Hennebecks have shuttled the sisters to countless therapy appointments and counseling sessions as they undo the trauma they experienced. They have gone on family vacations and created holiday traditions the girls will carry with them into adulthood.
Hailey, Dustee and Annabelle are healing and growing together. As we work to prevent children from being separated, we celebrate the success of siblings being reunited. Just like these sisters, we want all siblings to grow up together. We know that maintaining these relationships will have a positive impact that lasts a lifetime.