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The Importance Of Sibling Relationships And Maintaining Contact

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This chapter provides a review of the literature and already existing data in relation to practitioners’ views on the impact of sibling separation on the emotional development of a child in care. ‘The foster care social service system is designed to ameliorate adverse family and environmental conditions that may interfere with typical child development. Currently, the system provides short- and long-term out of home placement to children whose parents are deemed unable to care adequately for them’(The impact of foster care on development, 2006 pg. 57).It is increasingly recognised that a time of healthy and stable family life can be of profound healing to a child deprived of these things in his or her birth family (Wiener,2007 pg.7) Moreover, Bowlby notes, the terms 'separation' and 'loss' suggest that' the attachment figure of the individual is inaccessible '(Bowlby Vol. 2 1998: 42) and it does not necessarily mean physical inaccessibility but may also include being' emotionally distant '(Bowlby Vol. 2 1998: 43). Furthermore, this chapter will explore the importance of sibling relationships and the role that siblings play in development, as well as the importance of maintaining contact. An important question associated with sibling separation is practitioners’ views on this subject. I will therefore also be exploring the literature in relation to practitioners’ experiences. Before proceeding to examine these areas, it is important to note that the focus of this research are the effects that separation can have on the emotional development of a child. In addition, it should be noted that the psychological well-being of children in the care system has improved due to the resulting rise in studies on both challenges and approaches to support those children with mental health needs. (Carr 2000).

The term sibling can be hard to define especially with children in foster care who have often lived in various families. Research indicates that biological relatedness was not associated with young children’s perceptions of closeness to siblings; being a full, half, or stepsibling did not influence their perception of closeness (Sturgess, Dunn, & Davies, 2001). This definition matches that found on ‘Siblings in care: law and practice’ (NSPCC 2010) which writes, ’It should be noted that the term ‘sibling’ is not legally defined. It can include step-siblings, half-siblings, or unrelated children who have been brought up together.’ Regarding sibling relationships, the challenge is to better understand the nature of sibling relationships between children in foster or adoptive placement and the challenges and procedures involved in maintaining these relationships. Additionally, ‘Children define themselves by comparing themselves to important others; siblings play a critical role in this definition throughout lifespan’. (Groze 1996)

This chapter will explore the emotional wellbeing of a child in care in context with the impact that sibling separation has on looked after children. It is important to point out that most social work practice guidelines favour placing brothers and sisters together in the event that they are removed from the care of their parents (Hegar 1988; Smith 1996). Furthermore, the presumption of the 1989 Children Act is to place siblings together – so far as is reasonably practical and consistent with his welfare. However, sadly for children in foster care, there are a numerous reasons why siblings may not be placed together, which could include but are not limited to: large groups of siblings, sibling abuse, varying developmental needs, and time to enter the foster care system (Shlonsky, Bellamy, Elkins & Ashare, 2005; Smith, 1998; Whelan, 2003). This chapter will demonstrate that in recent years relationships among siblings in foster care have received an increasing amount of attention from the field of child welfare (Groza et al 2003). This can be illustrated briefly by the fact that ‘The studies involving an adult perspective leaves no doubt that the separation of siblings is not a minor issue and can inflict pain, sadness and feelings of injustice which may remain throughout life.’ (Mullender,1999). Alongside this some children who have been separated from their siblings may also mourn the loss of the caregiving position they had undertaken prior to the separation with their siblings (Harrison, 1999b;Ward, 1984).Issues concerning the separation of siblings in foster care have been a subject of research since the initial stages of the development of child welfare agencies (Hegar, 2005). Since the 1990s, there has been a slow growth in the number of publications on sibling ties and specifically on siblings in foster care (Hegar, 2005).

This chapter will closely explore the emotional effects of separating siblings and the importance of sibling relationships, it is crucial to understand that whilst sibling relationships can promote positive developmental outcomes and whilst a healthy positive sibling relationship ‘can provide a permanent unconditional relationship that is ascribed rather than an earned role – validate a child’s worth as a human being because the love he/she receives does not have to be earned – throughout lifetime’ (Cicirelli, 1995) as well as the fact that ‘Separation can involve great sadness and their grief aggravated by worry and guilt about siblings’ (Harrison, 1999) that in terms of sibling relationships that it is always not possible to keep siblings together and the best interests of each individual child must be taken into consideration. Foster youth describe the separation of siblings as “an extra punishment, a separate loss, and another pain that is not needed” (YLAT, 2002). However, Practitioners in social work have demonstrated consistently that putting siblings together is not always feasible and research should acknowledge the point at some stage. Following in the footsteps of Dance et al (2002), and as indicated previously ‘For some children, traumatic memories of past parental abuse can be surfaced by contact with siblings, causing the child additional trauma while in care (Bank, 1992). Furthermore, some siblings may reinforce behavioural problems in each other therefore risk of placement instability is increased (Howe et al., 2000). In summary, it has been shown from this chapter that whilst sibling relationships are psychologically powerful and critically important not only in childhood but in later adolescent life that further exploration of the emotional effects that separation has on child is necessary. Grounds for not placing siblings together include insufficient placement resources to support sibling placement, different timelines for permanence between siblings of different ages, differing needs of individual siblings, and organisational barriers (Shlonsky et al., 2005; Webster et al., 2005).In addition, it is important that professionals consider children's experiences from a child's perspective, so that they can appreciate the vital importance of maintaining sibling relations whenever possible.

The importance of sibling relationships

I will now move on to discuss the importance of sibling relationships, Children in foster care may live and grow links to children who may or may not have a biological relationship with them. The word 'Fictive Kin' has been used in child welfare to describe types of relationships in a child's life where there is no legal or biological attachment but there is a deep, lasting connection (Casey Family Services, 2002). The category of fictive kin encompasses children raised together in a common home although not biologically or legally related (Shlonsky, Bellamy, Elkins, & Ashare, 2005). The term ‘Fictive Kin’ refers to an individual who is not related by birth, adoption, or marriage to a child, but who has an emotionally significant relationship with the child. Whilst it’s important to highlight that there are several types of relationships that could be described as siblings such as,

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  • Full or half-siblings, including any children who were relinquished or removed at birth
  • Stepsiblings
  • Adopted children in the same household, not biologically related
  • Children born into the family and their foster/adopted siblings
  • Foster children in the same family

(Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2013 pg. 2, Bulletin for professionals)

However, for the purpose of this research I will be focusing on the separation of biologically related children and the impact that being separated may have on their emotional development. Rutter (1981) Iterates that the word separation is used to refer to the physical loss of a particular mother figure, but not necessarily the simultaneous loss of mothering, which may be supplied by another person, In contrast deprivation refers to the loss of maternal care, but not essentially to the loss of the person recognised as the child's mother. This definition is like that found in (Bourguignon and Watson 1987) which writes that loss is the affectual state that an individual experience when something of significance is unexpectedly withdrawn.

Marjut Kosonen (1996) researched the emotional support and help provided by siblings and found that children would first try their mothers when they needed help, but then turn to older siblings for support, even before turning to their fathers. She also found that sibling support is particularly important for separated children as is the case for many children in foster care. The significance of sibling relationships differs according to individual circumstances of the child and depending on the stage of development in which they are at. It is worth noting that, sibling relations can be supportive or affected by rivalry (Sanders 2004). The role of sibling relationships has received little research study until recently, even though sibling relationships have the potential to contribute to primary importance in the context of placement and maltreatment (Shlonsky, Bellamy, Elkins, & Ashare, 2005). Over the last two decades, however, studies have taken a deeper look at sibling relationships and found that siblings in many ways are an integral part of children's lives. (Bryant, 1985; Cicirelli, 1989; Thibodeau. 1988). In addition, Sibling interactions have been found to impact important aspects of the personality of children (Dunn, 1983). For example, in cultivating pro-social behaviour (Dunn & Munn, 1985). It is important to note that most children in the care system have siblings, whether full, half or step siblings. Hochman et al. (1992) recorded that 65% to 85% of young people entering foster care have at least one sibling, with about 30% have four or more siblings. In addition, current projections show that 75 per cent of sibling groups continue to live apart after entering foster care (Hochman et al.).Despite this Berridge & Cleaver (1987) found more success in foster placements where children were placed with some or all their siblings. However, in saying that one very critical aspect that presents a major challenge when it comes to behaving in the best interests of siblings in foster care is adequate knowledge of the significance of sibling relationships. Social workers also often feel inadequate when it comes to knowledge of sibling relationships (Beckett, 1999). Despite this for most people with siblings, their relationship is the longest that a person can encounter. Furthermore, experiences with siblings, such as sharing and comparison, allow children to develop a sense of identity and an early bonding opportunity (Banks & Kahn, 1997). Research indicates that early sibling ties can be highly valuable as an investment in later relationships (Kosonen, 1994), and that their common developmental and affective history positions siblings in a position where they can become confident (Howe, Aquan-Asee, Bukowski, Lehoux, & Rinaldi, 2001). In addition, sibling relationships can be strengthened when there are major parental problems and the home atmosphere is not harmonious (Sheehan et al., 2004). This definition is like that found in (Smith, 1996) which suggests that relationships between siblings can intensify when parents are emotionally unavailable or neglectful.

It is evident that sibling relationships are of great significance in a child's life. Sibling relationships serve as a way for young people to maintain a sense of their past and a way of understanding themselves and their lives. (Banks & Kahn, 1997). Previous studies have shown, throughout a child’s lifespan, sibling relationships may be more influential than those with other people, including parents, partners, and children (Hochman et al., 1992).

Importance of maintaining contact

Although current and former foster children have for many decades identified their grief and longing for contact with missing siblings (Downes, 1992; Festinger, 1983; Maluccio, Krieger, & Pine, 1990), Researchers have struggled to develop a structured theoretical framework for researching children's experiences in foster care. Furthermore, the fact that in some cases the child does not enter foster care at the same time as their siblings complicates the problem of sibling placement, and siblings may enter and leave foster care at different times. Moreover, siblings can be put together with all siblings, along with some siblings, or put separately even if some siblings are placed outside the family. When siblings are not placed together, the challenge is to help them maintain contact with one another (Smith, 1996). However, many siblings may be separated upon removal from the family home and have no regular contact while in foster care (Wojciak, McWey, & Helfrich, 2013). For some children in foster care their separation or irregular contact with their siblings can cause those relationships to fade away, perhaps to the point of permanent separation and estrangement. Although this may be true it is also important to remember that not all siblings can be put together, and this is depending on the circumstances of each case and should be assessed on an individual basis. Therefore, the appropriate amount of interaction will vary, some relationships between siblings are violent, aggressive and unhealthy. Siblings with emotional or behavioural issues can also have a detrimental effect on other group siblings, causing unwanted and unnecessary tension (Ryan, 2002; Herrick & Piccus, 2005). Thus, it is crucial that the attachment between siblings is a consideration in all decision-making and that it involves the best interests and well-being of all children and siblings in foster care (Herrick & Piccus, 2005). These results are like those reported by (Ward 1984, pg.322) who acknowledged that ‘The final decision should be based on the needs and wishes of the children rather than on the administrative expediency or difficulty in finding home’.

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