End the pain of sibling separation

BUT for COVID-19, I would have been at the International Foster Care Conference in Montreal, Canada to present on Tasmania’s world-leading sibling foster care program.

Our sibling group care program enables children coming into foster care to stay with their brothers and sisters.

Key Assets has been operating this program for the Tasmanian Government, which had the foresight, since 2015, to understand that sibling relationships were critical. It has provided foster care for more than 100 sibling groups, made up of three or more children.

Before the program started, four brothers faced separation because no foster carer agency had a carer with the space and capacity to look after them.

Key Assets took on the task of finding a suitable foster carer so the boys could stay together over the longer-term.

A carer couple was found and, over the years, they were strongly supported by social and youth workers to ensure success for the brothers. Two of the boys are now adults, have gone to university and live independently, but know they can always come home to spend time with their younger brothers. It is doubtful these outcomes could have been achieved if the boys had been separated five years before, because their connection to each other supported their connections to others.

Generally, sibling relationships are the most enduring of our lives. Yet when it comes to child protection, few countries appear to prioritise the sibling relationship, acknowledge the significance of our siblings or seek to preserve those relationships in legislation.

Lip service is sometimes paid to sibling contact, but it is often more about the adults than the kids. Often children in foster care see their siblings at the same time as they see their parents. Care-leavers report this time is often spent updating parents on events in their lives, leaving little time for brothers and sisters to have fun, play and connect as they should.

Research has shown that when separated, children miss their siblings as much as their parents, and feel less secure when separated from their brothers and sisters.

This was particularly true for siblings who had a care-giving role to other siblings before their removal. Ironically, this is sometimes a rationale used for siblings not living together in foster care. Another study concluded that placing siblings together was a protective factor, suggesting children had better outcomes, including resilience in schooling and outcomes in employment, housing and relationships.

Children have others with whom to share their stories and re-live experiences, and this all helps to build a sense of who they are. It’s a no-brainer really — kids do better in foster care when surrounded by at least some of their family. They do not have to worry about what is happening to their brothers and sisters, where they are and who they’re living with.

Foster carers may not have the space for multiple children. However, in Tasmania at least 20 per cent of carers are looking after three or more, often unrelated, children — so this is about how you allocate your resources.

Foster parents are found specifically to keep children together, and homes for larger groups are preserved.

It is often said to be easier looking after three children than one, because children, especially siblings, connect, play and rely on each other. Logistics can often be simpler, such as not having to transport children to different schools or family contact arrangements, or having multiple case workers or family members to deal with — a potential logistical nightmare.

There can be challenges. It may be not all children in a sibling group come into care at the same time.

There may be behavioural rationales used to justify separating siblings. In Key Assets’ experience these are mostly furphies. In five years we have not recorded a single critical incident between siblings. Children in care, like all children, bicker, argue and fight with each other.

Research shows 70 per cent of siblings across all families fight — but this is not a reason to make them live apart. We sometimes feel the service system jumps too quickly to separate siblings to avoid having to deal with a range of logistical, workload or safety challenges, but not considering the longer-term consequences of separation.

Once separated, it is very difficult and unlikely children will come back together as a sibling group. It’s also far less likely they will be reunified with their parents — and our program supports this finding.

Key Assets’ program also shows good results in education, with almost all children and young people in full-time schooling. All children have regular and meaningful contact with at least one other family member outside their sibling group, and most have been able to live with the same carer for as long as needed.

Not only do children placed in foster care with their siblings seem to do better, the children and young people themselves report being more comfortable and settled.

Tasmania is leading the way in this work. We need to do more of it. According to CREATE Foundation research, more than one third of children in foster care are separated from all of their brothers and sisters.

Key Assets’ Tasmanian program helps preserve the connectedness of brothers and sisters. Relationships with our siblings really are for life.

Caroline Brown is director of Key Assets Tasmania, a not-for-profit, non-government children’s services provider and Tasmania’s only sibling group care provider.

As posted in the Mercury 9th July 2020