Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Happy Brothers And Sisters Day!


Today is National Brothers And Sisters Day. As we think about our relationships with our own brothers and sisters, we need to think of how this day relates to kids in foster care. Of the 600,000 living in foster care in the United States, 75% of them are separated from at least one sibling.
There are many reasons why siblings who are in foster care do not stay together. One common reason is that, in a family with a lot of children, it is hard to find a single foster home that is able to take all of the children at once. Foster homes are usually licensed for a certain number of children, with the number being dependent of the amount of room they have in their house, their financial situation, their own preferences for how many children they'd like to have, etc. And many foster homes fill up one by one... a family licensed to take four children will often already have two or three children living there already.
Also, foster parents may have certain preferences when it comes to the ages, genders, and needs of the children they take. For instance, say there is a family with five children: Three boys ages 14, 12, and 7, and two girls ages 11 and 6. One foster family is willing to take girls under the age of 10, so they take the 6-year-old girl. Another home will take elementary school aged boys, so they take the 7 year old boy. Because of the 12-year-olds' behavior problems, he is put in a foster home specializing in boys with behavior disorders. Another home is willing to take girls ages 12 to 15, but they make an exception and take the 11-year-old girl. And the caseworker is having a lot of trouble finding a place for the 14-year-old boy, so eventually he is placed in a group home for teenaged boys. All of them are safe, and cared for, but none of them are together.
Another reason may be that, when siblings are placed in a foster home together, they may have fights... as all siblings tend to do. The foster parents may become overwhelmed and request that one of the siblings be removed, to end the fighting.
Still another reason can be that, in a home where children were abused and neglected, one or two of the older children may have become like surrogate parental units to the younger children. Once in foster care, caseworkers may choose to separate the children to give the older children a chance to be children themselves, or to keep the older children from interfering with the younger childrens' foster parents.

For kids in foster care who are separated from their siblings, the experience is even more traumatic than the separation from their parents. Many kids can understand on some level why they cannot be with their parents... but they can't understand why they can't be with their siblings. Think about all of the normal, every day things you did with your brothers and sisters as a child... walking to school together, playing in the backyard together, eating breakfast together before school, fighting in the car during family vacations, celebrating each other's birthdays, tattling on each other, whispering to each other at night from your beds. Now imagine if you couldn't have any of that. Imagine you knew your siblings were your siblings, but your relationship with them was more like that of cousins, because you lived apart and only saw each other occasionally.

Children in foster care who are separated from their siblings are usually allowed to visit each other. But for overworked case workers and busy foster families, arranging the visits can be difficult. The luckiest kids get to see each other once a week, but many more kids see each other once a month, only on holidays, or less.

And when they do see each other, often the visits are unnatural, such as in an office, being supervised by a caseworker.

Every summer I volunteer at Camp To Belong, which is a camp that attempts to strengthen the bond between siblings in foster care. The biggest thing Camp To Belong does is run several summer camps, across the country, esoecially for siblings who are separated from each other. During this week, siblings spend every waking moment together. They get to eat meals together, and do traditional camp-like activities such as hiking, swimming, arts and crafts, and campfires together. They also get to do some extra-special things designed just for them. One day at camp is Birthday Night, a birthday party for all of the children! (Because many times siblings in foster care don't get to celebrate their actual birthdays together!) The children get to pick out presents for each other, and cake and ice cream is served! They also get to create travel-sized pillows for each other to keep close to their hearts.

The last day of camp is always the saddest. Just about every adult staff member is crying right along with the kids! It feels great to be able to give the siblings this fun week to spend together... but then you must put them on separate busses, send them back to separate homes, and know that tonight they will be crying in their beds because they miss their brothers and sisters.

Perhaps someday, the foster care system will become better equipped to keep families together. I hope so!

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