by Lansing Wood
The adoptions of siblings raises many complicated issues. I would like to start a process of sharing experiences and information through News from FAIR. Many of our readers have been involved in the placement of siblings in their roles as social workers, therapists, or parents. This article will open the topic with an overview of some concerns in the hopes that others will have much to add from a personal or professional perspective. Most welcome are individual family experiences, discussions of agency policies and guidelines, suggestions for parents considering the adoptions of siblings, or any other related ideas, concerns or information.
Siblings who need adoptive placement are considered to be "special needs" children for many reasons. It is assumed that a family willing to take more than one child at a time is harder to find than a family willing to make room for "just one more." Siblings present multiples in terms of beds, bicycles, shoes and seat belts. More significantly, they bring multiple complexities of past and present relationships to birth parents, foster parents and to one another. Each child has a different life experience and understanding of it due to differences in age, sex birth order, and genetic "mix". A sibling group impacts the new family system by adding weight simultaneously at several places on the mobile of relationships and roles, throwing it wildly out of balance.]
So many factors are significant in placing siblings into a family, that childcare workers are often at loss to find a placement that seems to fit for all of the siblings and a particular family. Thus the idea of splitting siblings for placement arises, sometimes in an effort to meet the special needs of one or more of the sibs and sometimes out of the necessity to find homes for the children within a limited amount of time or within a certain geographic area.
Placement workers must juggle the many and often conflicting needs and priorities of the agency or system, the children, and the family or families involved. It is a reality that children often experience multiple temporary placements after whatever crisis caused that removal from their birth family before a hopefully final adoptive or fost-adopt placement is made. These "temporary" placements could include shelter care, other institutional care such as reception homes or orphanages in other countries, hospital care, therapeutic residential care, emergency foster home placement or long term foster care. The question of splitting siblings or not can arise from the beginning or surface later as permanent home is being sought. Perhaps not all children in the birth family are relinquished by parents or removed by other court process. Perhaps the urgency of placement need necessitated separate foster homes. Many scenarios can be imagined. I would like to focus on the presumed permanent placement of sibling groups of two or more children.
From the adoptive family’s point of view, receiving siblings can have positives as well as the difficulties already mentioned. Sibs can be supportive to one another as they experience the trauma of a move. If there is a language or cultural barrier between the children and the new family and environment, children old enough to be verbal can take solace in being able to communicate with one another. They can also help each other retain memories and put pieces of past events together. An older sib can help clarify things for younger children. Particularly in trans-racial placements they can give each other the security of living with someone who "looks like me."
Siblings can also lessen the pressure of the forced development of a relationship with new parents. They can ease the stress by playing with one another, giving the parents and perhaps other children already in the family a chance to relax. There is something to the two are easier than one adage. Contrast this with the spotlight on a single child placed with a one or two parent family with no other children. The desperate loneliness and incredible strain of having to relate totally to strangers of another generation can only be imagined. Parents can rely on one another or on friends for support but often a newly placed child will have no one familiar in his life, except perhaps the worker who comes and goes in times trouble.
On the other hand, the common experience or language of sibs can slow the attachment of the children to the new family. Past patterns of relating in destructive ways may be carried into the new situation, making parenting particularly difficult. The new family may be thwarted in its attempts to integrate the new members when the new children seem to function as a unit, taking care of its own needs and appearing to be self-sufficient. It may be more difficult for parents to make individual relationships with kids who are banding together for support. Sometimes these difficulties are seen as justifications for the separation of siblings for permanent placement. Unless the situation is extreme, however, it is hard to support the separation of children who have already suffered severe loss, simply because the adjustment problems may be more difficult. Very careful evaluation of all of the factors is essential, but unfortunately not always attempted or accomplished, before the decision is made.
Beyond the issues of multiple and complex initial adjustments for the families who receive siblings are the longer-term relationships among all of the family members and the parents’ discovery of the ongoing individual special needs of the children. Most often children have had devastating losses and marginal or inadequate early parenting. They may have witnessed or been the object of violence. Commonly sexual abuse has been part of the experience of one or more of the sibs. There may be health problems from the agencies placing the children. Often there is limited or no contact with birth parents, foster families or others who have cared for and known the children well. The children’s records may be spotty, even if they have been shared with the new family.
It is no wonder that the challenge of sibling adoption sometimes proves to be overwhelming to a family, particularly if the placement process was hasty or arbitrary, if the family was not realistically prepared, if complete information was not available or not shared, or if there is little knowledgeable post placement support for the family. One or more of the sibs may reveal such severe emotional problems that the safety and survival of the family is threatened, either literally or figuratively. Perhaps one of the sibs can be helped to grieve for past losses and allow new attachments to form, while her sister is caught in the rage of past unmet needs and unspeakable experiences over which she had no control. To outsiders the problem may not seem so extreme, yet the parents feel no attachment to one of the kids in spite of all of their good intentions and efforts to foster a relationship.
Once again the questions arise: Can this family meet the needs of all of the children in this sibling group and survive? Can any family parent a child with these behaviors, or is this family caught in an unrealistic dream of overly high expectations? At this point should a replacement of one or some of the sibs be considered or should all of the sibs be replaced in order to keep them together even though some have bonded well to this family? Should the bond between sibs, one of whom seems incapable of managing family life, outweigh the attachment which has formed between the other sibs and the adoptive or fost-adopt family? What kind of bond exists between the children and how can this be evaluated? Does, for example, a six year old helping a two year old tie her shoe indicate a significant bond between the two? Since the sibs have been through prior moves together, must they always be moved together even though it seems that one has made a good adjustment in the current family?
These are difficult questions. Their answers, however, affect the lives of many children and families, including many readers of this newsletter. I hope that this article will open the door to sharing and enable us to deepen our understanding of the difficult issues involved. Reactions to this article as well as the knowledge, experience and thoughts of any readers are most welcome.