Sibling Issues in Foster Care and Adoption

Child welfare professionals can make a critical contribution to the well-being of children who enter care by preserving their connections with their brothers and sisters. approximately two-thirds of children in foster care in the United States have a sibling also in care. For a variety of reasons, many of these siblings are not placed together initially or become separated over time. Foster youth describe this experience as a devastating additional loss.

Defining a Sibling Relationship

The identification of siblings can be challenging, especially when children have lived in more than one family. children’s definitions of their siblings often differ from those caseworkers or official legislative definitions. children are less formal than adults in their view of who is a brother or sister. Research indicates that biological relatedness was not associated with young children’s perceptions of closeness to siblings; being a full, half, or step-sibling did not influence their perception of closeness. Children in foster care may live with and develop ties to children with whom they may or may not have a biological relationship. In child welfare, the term “fictive kin” has been introduced to recognize types of relationships in a child’s life where there is no legal or biological tie, but a strong, enduring bond exists.

There are many types of relationships that might be defined as sibling relationships:

  • Full or half-siblings, including any children who were relinquished or removed at birth
  • Step-siblings
  • Adopted children in the same household, not biologically related
  • Children born into the family and their foster/adopted siblings
  • Other close relatives or non-relatives living in the same kinship home
  • Foster children in the same family
  • Orphanage mates or group-home mates with a close, enduring relationship
  • Children of the partner or former partner of the child’s parent
  • Individuals conceived from the same sperm or egg donor

While laws and policies may have restrictive definitions of siblings that typically require a biological parent in common, child- and family-centered practice respects cultural values and recognizes close, non-biological relationships as a source of support to the child. In these cases, the child may be one of the best sources of information regarding who is considered a sibling.

Importance of Siblings

Sibling relationships are emotionally powerful and critically important not only in childhood, but over the course of a lifetime. As children, siblings form a child’s first peer group, and they typically spend more time with each other than with anyone else. Children learn social skills, particularly in sharing and managing conflict, from negotiating with brothers and sisters. Sibling relationships can provide a significant source of continuity throughout a child’s lifetime and are likely to be the longest relationships that most people experience.

The nature and importance of sibling relationships vary for individuals, depending on their own circumstances and developmental stage. Typically, there is rivalry in the preschool years, variability in closeness during middle childhood (depending on the level of warmth in the relationship), and less sibling closeness in adolescence when teens are focused on peers. An extensive body of research addresses issues of birth order, gender, age spacing, and other influences on sibling relationships. Research has demonstrated that warmth in sibling relationships is associated with less loneliness, fewer behavior problems, and higher self-worth.

Studies conducted on the emotional support and help that siblings provide and found that when they needed help, children would first seek out their mothers but then turn to older siblings for support, even before they would go to their fathers. Research also found that for isolated children is is the case for many children in foster care), sibling support is especially crucial. For these children, an older sibling was often their only perceived source of help.

Sibling Relationships in Abusive or Neglectful Families

In many families involved with child welfare, sibling relationships take on more importance because they can provide the support and nurture that are not consistently provided by parents. For children entering care, siblings can serve as a buffer against the worst effects of harsh circumstances. While sibling relationships in particular families experiencing adverse situations do not always compensate for other deficits, research has validated that, for many children, sibling relationships do promote resilience. For example, a young child’s secure attachment to an older sibling can diminish the impact of adverse circumstances such as parental mental illness, substance abuse, or loss. Adverse circumstances can magnify both the positive and negative qualities of sibling relationships. Some studies have found that the ties between siblings become closer as a result of helping each other through adversity, such as a parental divorce.

Since children in foster care experience more losses of significant relationships, siblings are often their only source for continuity of important attachments. For children entering care, being with their brothers and sisters promotes a sense of safety and well-being and being separated from them can trigger grief and anxiety. Therefore, it is especially important to protect these ties that offer support to children removed from their original families.

Benefits of Placing Siblings Together

For children entering care, being with their siblings can enhance their sense f safety and well-being and and provide natural, mutual support. This benefit is in contrast to the traumatic consequences of separation, which may include additional loss, grief, and anxiety over their siblings’ well-being. Siblings have a shared history, and maintaining their bond provides continuity of identity and belonging. The benefits of keeping brothers and sisters together are most clearly evidenced from the perspectives of youth themselves.

Children’s Perspective

It is essential that professionals be able to understand children’s experiences from the child’s perspective in order to be able to grasp the critical importance of maintaining sibling connections whenever possible.

Studies that directly seek the perspective of foster children are relatively rare, but those that have done so consistently underscore the overwhelming importance of protecting sibling relationships. Many studies have shown that in memories of initial removal, many children did not know they were being separated from siblings until they were dropped off at different houses, nor did they know how to contact each other.

Not only is the support of siblings helpful in the immediate adjustment to the trauma of placement, but this contact continues to offer support to the child over the course of their time and care into adulthood.

For some siblings in care, their separation or infrequent visiting can cause their relationships to wither, sometimes to the point of permanent estrangement. Maintaining these relationships is important for the future as well as the present. Youth who age out of foster care report the value of sibling connections.

Research on Outcomes of Placing Siblings Together

Research on sibling placement patterns has confronted methodological challenges and developed more sophisticated research designs; however, there are differences in findings across studies. When significant differences are found between siblings placed in different patterns, they typically favor siblings placed totally or partially with each other over those placed completely separately. Joint sibling placements can increase the likelihood of achieving permanency. Several studies have found that placing siblings in the same foster home is associated with a significantly higher rate of family reunification. Other results did not find such an association with reunification, but did find that children placed with the same number of siblings consistently throughout foster care had greater chances for adoption or subsidized guardianship than those placed alone. Some studies find that children placed with their siblings also experience more stability and fewer disruptions in care than those who were separated.

Conversely, some studies have found that separated siblings in foster care or adoption are at higher risk for negative adjustment outcomes, including running away and higher levels of behavior problems, evidenced in some studies but not all. Another study found that girls separated from all of their siblings are at the greatest risk for poor mental health and socialization. Yet another study found that while separated siblings were not reported to have more behavioral problems, teachers did report lower academic performance.

For agencies, placing siblings in the same home can streamline some processes such as visits by caseworkers. Also, caseworkers are relieved of the obligation to arrange and carry out visits among siblings if they are already living together. Communication between birth and foster families is also made more manageable when there is only one foster family involved.

Barriers to Placing Siblings Together

Besides entering foster care at different times, a number of other demographic and situational factors are associated with the likelihood that siblings are placed in the same foster home. These include:

  • Size of sibling group – larger groups are more often split.
  • Age gap – wide age span leads to splitting
  • Differences in the needs of siblings
  • Type of placement – siblings placed with kin are more likely to be together and those in group care are less likely
  • Behavior problems – a sibling with a behavior problem is more likely to be removed
  • Organizational policies and procedures
  • Adequacy of placement resources and supports
  • Agency rules regarding the maximum number of children who can be placed in a foster home

In many if not most cases of sibling separation, brothers and sisters are separated because the system cannot accommodate the best interests of children rather than for any child-centered reason.

Beliefs Associated With Placing Siblings Apart

Beliefs and attitudes of foster parents, workers, agency personnel, and therapists also contribute to separating siblings.

Recommendations of therapists may be the basis of some placements. However, best practice indicates that the therapist should have experience with siblings in child welfare and that the same therapist should see al of the siblings in order to make a recommendation that is beneficial for the group. Some clinical judgments that have been used to justify separating siblings in the past are not necessarily best practice, including the following:

  • There is too much conflict or rivalry between particular siblings to keep them together.
  • The special needs of a single child require a separate placement.
  • An older child is too involved in taking care of a younger brother or sister.
  • A sibling born after older siblings have been removed from the home can be considered separately for purposes of permanency goals, because the children do not have an established relationship.

In many of these cases, therapy and services will help all the siblings, and the benefits of being together will outweigh those of being separated.

Practices for Keeping Siblings Together in Placement

Decisions regarding sibling placement may be more straightforward when siblings come into care at the same time, and the sibling group is small. When the sibling group is large, enters into care at different times, or individual siblings have extraordinary needs, caseworkers face more challenges.

Initial Assessment of Sibling Relationships

During intake, workers need to complete a thorough assessment of sibling relationships and individual children, including the experience and feelings of each child. If separate placements must be made for very large sibling groups, this assessment will help the worker make decisions about which sibling relationships are most essential to the well-being of specific children. They should talk with the children individually and ask age-appropriate questions, such as:

  • Which siblings do you enjoy spending time with?
  • Which sibling enjoys spending time with you?
  • Who will play a game with you?
  • Which sibling do you turn to when you are afraid of hurt?
  • Which sibling turns to you when he or she is afraid of hurt?

Factors for making decisions regarding the placement of siblings include the degree of duration, quality, and intensity of the sibling relationships; any safety risks associated with placement; possible long-term benefits; the family’s ability to meet the needs of all siblings; and the children’s preferences.

In competing assessments, it is important to recognize that sibling relationships vary greatly in both positive and negative qualities. In evaluating the quality of sibling relationships, the worker will want to look for warmth or affection between siblings, rivalry and hostility, interdependence, and relative power and status in the relationship, as well as determining how much more time the siblings have spent together.

Strategies for Placing Siblings Together

Agency practices, along with the individual circumstances of each sibling group, will affect whether or not siblings are placed together. The following are practice strategies designed to address the needs of sibling groups.

  • Designate certain foster home resources for large sibling groups and offer incentives to hold them open for these placements.
  • Recruit families specifically to care for sibling groups through community outreach, the media, special events, faith-based organizations, photolistings, and websites.
  • Providing training for caseworkers, foster, and adoptive parents on the importance of preserving sibling connections and the impact of sibling loss on children.
  • Have contracts with private agencies to offer a specialized foster care program designed specifically for large sibling groups.
  • If efforts are being made to recruit an adoptive family for a sibling group, list them as a group with a picture of the entire sibling group.
  • Have a system in place to track the location and status of all siblings.
  • Seek kinship placements first, because they are generally more open to talking a sibling group and because such placements offer the further advantage of preserving family connections.
  • Conduct a thorough social work assessment of the sibling group as a whole, as well as of each individual child, and include children in discussions.
  • Assign all siblings to the same caseworker, no matter when they enter care.
  • If siblings must be separated in an emergency placement, provide for a review within the first week to plan for reunification.
  • At regular case reviews, discuss sibling issues and include children or youth in these discussions.
  • Provide sufficient resources for foster families who take in large sibling groups and may need additional household items and services.
  • Ensure that information about siblings is included in each child’s lifebook.
  • Conduct yearly interviews with adoptive parents of separated siblings to assess:
    • If visits between and among the siblings are continuing, how often, for how long, and of what quality
    • If visits have discontinued, for what reason(s) and what would it take to reestablish connections

When Siblings Cannot Live in the Same House

Despite supportive policies or a caseworker’s best efforts, a number of situations may lead to siblings being placed separately. This initial separation can lead to permanent separation if an agency does not make ongoing, concerted efforts to place the children together. Both policy and practice should promote ongoing efforts to reunite separated siblings. Common dilemmas regarding separated siblings include the following:

  • An infant may cone into care and be placed in a foster home before workers have determined that the infant has siblings already in foster care or in adoptive homes. The foster parents of the infant may then argue against the removal of the infant from their home. To avoid this dilemma, agencies should establish whether or not any infant or child coming into care has siblings already in placement. If so, strong efforts should be made to place the infant with siblings.
  • In some cases of separated siblings, foster parents may want to adopt only the sibling placed with them. Workers are put in the untenable position of choosing the lesser of two evils – allowing the child to be adopted without his or her siblings or keeping the child in foster care until a family can be found who will adopt all of the siblings. To reduce the likelihood of this situation, foster parents should always be told at the time of placement that reuniting siblings is a top priority of the agency. Whatever decision is made, there should be provisions for maintaining connections with both the foster parents and siblings.
  • A similar dilemma occurs when a sibling group placement disrupts because the foster parents cannot handle one of the sibling’s behavior but they want to continue parenting the others. The worker must decide whether to remove just the one child or the entire sibling group. An alternative would be to have a temporary specialized placement for the sibling with behavior problems if the foster parents are willing to work toward reintegrating this child into their family.

When a Sibling is Abusive

Whenever there is a concern that one sibling poses a safety risk to another, a thorough assessment needs to occur. Physical aggression within the normal range of sibling relationships needs to be differentiated from physical abuse or victimization of a weaker sibling. Distinctions need to be made between sexually reactive behavior (inappropriate sexual touching or fondling between children close in age) and sexual abuse by a more powerful sibling of another. Also, the severity of the abusive behavior needs to be assessed and a determination made as to whether the safety risks are moderate and can be managed through closer supervision, therapeutic parenting, and clinical treatment to change behaviors. If there is significant physical or sexual abuse that does not respond to treatment or if the risk of recurrence is high, the abusing sibling most likely needs to be moved to another placement.

Victimization of one sibling by another should not be ignored. Research indicates that the impact of sexual abuse by a sibling is just as harmful to the victim as sexual abuse by a parent or stepparent. children should be protected from abuse by a sibling just as they are protected from abuse by caretakers. In some cases, it may be possible to work toward reunification after a period of treatment for the offending sibling.

Maintaining Ties Between Separated Siblings

When siblings cannot be placed together, facilitating regular contact is critical to maintaining these relationships. Regular contact may even affect permanency outcomes.

Ultimately, workers and foster or adoptive parents have to understand the importance of sibling contact for the children for whom they are responsible in order to maintain their commitment to making these contacts happen. Caregivers play a crucial gatekeeping role in regulating contact between siblings, particularly after adoption, and sometimes they limit contact between siblings, particularly after adoption, and sometimes they limit contact with the intent of protecting themselves or the child from what they view as negative influences or painful experiences. Sometimes supporting and sustaining sibling visits requires clinical interventions, including both sibling therapy and clinically supervised visits, in order to address dysfunctional patterns that have developed in their relationships. Barriers to visiting could include anxiety, behavioral problems of individual children, miscommunication among their respective foster or adoptive parents, and/or parental concerns about the effect of visits on specific children.

Facebook and other social media make it much easier for siblings to both find and communicate with one another, regardless of the adults’ feelings or concerns.

Strategies for Preserving Sibling Ties in Separate Placements

Some promising practices from the field suggest ways to maintain ties among separated siblings.

  • Place siblings with kinship caregivers who have an established personal relationship. Even when siblings cannot be placed in the same house, they are more apt to keep in close contact if they are each placed with a relative.
  • Place nearby. Placing siblings in the same neighborhood or school district ensures that they will be able to see each other regularly. Also, keeping children in their same schools contributes to better educational outcomes.
  • Arrange for regular visits. Frequent visits help to preserve sibling bonds. Some state statutes specify contact twice a month, and other states require weekly visits. Many don’t have frequency specification. Also, visits with birth parents can be arranged to occur at a time when all the siblings can be together.
  • Arrange other forms of contact. If the distance between siblings is great, workers need to assist foster and adoptive families in maintaining frequent contacts through letters, email, social media, cards, and phone calls. Make sure that children have full contact information for all their siblings. For instance, providing older siblings with calling cards may facilitate sibling communication.
  • Involve families in planning. The adults in the siblings’ families should be involved with the worker in developing a plan for ongoing contact. This meeting should include working through any barriers to visits, and the plan needs to be reviewed and revised as needed, at least yearly. Sometimes, there are value differences between families or differences in rules that cause parental discomfort with visits. Such differences need to be discussed and resolved.
  • Plan joint outings or camp experiences. Siblings may be able to spend time together in a joint activity or at summer or weekend camps, including camps specifically for siblings or through short-term outings. Such camp experiences help siblings build and maintain their relationships.
  • Arrange for joint respite care.Families caring for siblings may be able to provide babysitting or respite care for each other, thus giving the siblings another opportunity to spend time together.
  • Help children with emotions. Sometimes sibling visits stir up emotional issues in children, such as the intense feelings they may experience when visiting birth parents. Children need to be helped to express and work through these feelings; this does not mean visits should not occur. Visits should provide some opportunities for joint lifebook work with siblings. If siblings are in therapy, they should be seeing the same therapist, and it may be possible to schedule appointments either jointly or back to back. Children may also need help with feigns of guild if they have been removed from an abusive home while other siblings were left behind or born later.
  • Encourage sustained contact. Sustaining sibling contact often requires a unique understanding and commitment from parents. Many adoptive parents recognize the importance of their adopted children having contact with siblings living with their birth families or other adoptive families. Some families even travel across the country or to other countries to give their children the opportunity to get to know their siblings. Some states offset the costs of such visits through their adoption subsidy plans. The earlier these relationships can begin, the more children can use these opportunities to work through adoption identity issues that may arise, and the sooner they can develop truly meaningful relationships with siblings.

Many states have adoption registry that can help adult siblings separated by foster care or adoption reestablish contact later in life. The caseworker needs to make sure that ll pertinent information on each sibling is entered in the registry at the time of each child’s adoption.

Sibling Issues Within the Foster or Adoptive Family

Facilitating healthy attachments and interactions among all siblings in foster and adoptive families, including all birth, foster, and adoption children, is an essential therapeutic goal. A single family may contain birth and foster children as well as adopted children coming from different background or types of adoptions. Negative interaction patterns can result when children have different statuses in their families or special needs that require an inordinate amount of parental attention, create stress for other family members, or both.

Other dynamics lead to tensions as well; for example, one adopted child may have extensive information about his or her background, as well as ongoing contact with her birth relatives, while another child may have neither of these. An adopted child who maintains contact with his or her siblings who are still living with the birth family may have difficulty integrating nito the adopted family.

More than a dozen research studies have explored the experiences of birth children in foster families, but less attention has been paid to siblings in adoptive families. Birth children often report positive benefits of sharing their home with foster children but also report a range of difficulties: competing for parents’ time and attention; loss of family closeness; difficulties dealing with some foster siblings’ behavior problems, including having possessions stolen or fear of physical aggression; a high level of stress in the family; different expectations or discipline between birth and foster children; loss and worry when a foster sibling leaves the family; and others. Studies also show that the birth children often do not communicate their feelings and concerns fully to their parents and cope independently or through isolating themselves.

Some important strategies for parents and workers in addressing the needs of all children in the family include:

  • Encourage children to share their thoughts and feelings; empathize with and do not minimize their concerns.
  • Provide opportunities for fun and positive interactions between children to promote attachment.
  • Promote reciprocity between the children in the family; for example, if a child destroys the property of another, find a way for the child to make up for the loss such as earning the money to replace the item.
  • Find ways for parents to have meaningful one-on-one time with each child.
  • Teach children skills to resolve their own disputes to the extent possible.
  • Develop a support group for siblings, either informally or though an agency.
  • Seek professional help for serious sibling conflicts.


Source: Child Welfare:

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