By Valarie Edwards
Documentary filmmaker Yusef Presley was just 5 when he was separated from his sister, 7-year-old Khalia. The two initially entered foster care in the same family, but were later separated.
Presley was sent to live with a white family on a farm hundreds of miles away from his Wichita, Kansas family. While his aunt assumed custody of his sister, Presley, said he never felt safe in his rural home. He also recalls being told the separation was necessary because of his ongoing emotional and behavioral expressions. “I was depressed and lost. I felt broken without my sister,” he said.
For Presley, reconnecting with his sister nearly 20 years later is an ongoing process — one that’s been nearly as painful as their initial separation.
Keeping Siblings Connected
Keeping siblings in care connected requires a buy-in from resource parents and agency staffers alike, said Rhonda Robinson, director of domestic adoptions for Dallas, Texas-based Buckner International, a statewide provider of wrap-around services for families and children. Robinson, who was formerly in foster care, recommends the entire team practice communication, collaboration and coordination.
Communication: Families should communicate with one another. And, whenever possible, child welfare workers must do the same, either within their own agency or inter-agency. “We must communicate across lines and maintain that relationship and the sense of what that relationship represents,” Robinson said. “And we want to ensure we are portraying to our children the (sibling) relationship is primary and we value that relationship.”
Collaboration: Families should collaborate on issues related to health care, school progress and case status. “If kids are separated, it helps them understand what’s going on amongst their sibling group,” Robinson said.
Coordination: Families should coordinate visits between siblings in public spaces, if necessary or required by law. Or, coordinate respite care between resource parents, allowing each to have downtime with their own families. “The more that we can do to wrap around them collectively, the better the long term result will be,” she said.
Caseworkers can further strengthen the sibling connection by keeping children in neighboring communities or school districts, reducing stress on resource parents. Resource parents and caseworkers can also encourage phone calls, letters, cards to mark special occasions or even catching up on social media for youth who are old enough.
The Upside of Staying Connected
Research by www.childwelfare.gov reveals siblings living within the same resource family or, if separated, in close contact, are less likely to exhibit internalizing behaviors, show more closeness to their resource parents and are more comfortable in their new home than are those not placed with a sibling or where the connection is severed. Maintaining that closeness also serves as a protective factor for youth as they transition out of foster care, including improved mental and emotional health. Anecdotal evidence supports the research: siblings in foster care belong together.
“My siblings are my biggest supporters, my greatest cheerleaders and my best friends. They are part of some of the absolute happiest memories of my childhood and also some of the most profound moments of trauma I’ve experienced,” Robinson said.
The primary benefit of keeping siblings connected is “their shared, common experiences which strengthens their ability to navigate the system together, as well as their historical trauma,” said Bahia Overton, executive director of Portland’s nonprofit Black Parent Initiative. “There’s a feeling between siblings that, ‘we’re looking at things the same way based on our orientation in the world.’”
If Separation Becomes Necessary
Child and family therapists agree siblings should stay together whenever possible, unless emotional or behavioral concerns necessitate separation. If siblings must be separated, the decision should only be made after careful consideration and in conjunction with the entire resource team. Overton recommends separating siblings only if one has a severe mental illness which may put an overly trusting child in danger, or if there is a history of violence or criminal behavior. “Violence between siblings is cause to keep them separated,” said Overton. “If there is victimization — verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse between siblings — there needs to be a separation because the wounds between them are often triggering.”
Violence toward an adult is also cause for separation, especially if there is evidence of sibling-related pressure to join in the criminal acts. The child not exhibiting criminal behavior may feel a sense of loyalty, in spite of the violence they themselves may have experienced. “Because you protected me, but I also am scared of you because I know what you are capable of doing. Those dynamics are problematic, and should be explored,” Overton added.
It’s Not Your Fault
When a child enters foster care, they bring with them the trauma of uncertainty and a lack of trust, said Erica Donahue, a Massachusetts-based clinical social worker.
“A child‘s trauma comes from feeling they need to be in control,” Donahue said. “That intensifies when they’re taken away from their biological family and from their siblings.”
If a child in foster care, separated from their siblings, is having a hard time adjusting to their new home and family, experts say don’t take it personally. The rational part of a child’s brain isn’t fully developed until approximately age 25. It’s why researchers at New York’s University of Rochester say, when you ask a child “what were you thinking?”, their response — “I don’t know,” — is an honest one.
Until the brain is fully developed, children and teens process information with the emotional part of their brain, the amygdala. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, including the removal from the first or birth family and multiple moves, negatively impact the developing brain, skewing a child’s decision-making and learning processes.
Multiple ACEs can lead to toxic stress, which the Centers for Disease Control defines as “extended or prolonged stress.” Toxic stress negatively affects the immune systems and stress-response systems.
Resource parents can help a child separated from siblings adjust to a new home by recognizing the child’s responses are emotional rather than personal, advises Tracy Whitney, content creator for www.creatingafamily.org and mother of six, including two adopted daughters.
“I have a saying I use: ‘it‘s their brain, it‘s their brain, it‘s their brain’,” said Whitney. “The child that’s not trusting you or acting in an unloving or unkind way has spent years without adults they can trust or who have their best interests in mind. If you can step back and say, ‘OK, this isn‘t about me, this is about whatever trauma they‘ve experienced or whatever pain they‘ve experienced or disappointments they‘ve experienced.’”
Outcomes & Mitigating Loss
Siblings are our earliest and most influential teachers. Even more than our parents, we model our siblings’ behavior. They stand with us during the good and the bad times.
Early and reciprocal support between siblings is linked to a number of positive outcomes, including peer acceptance and social competence, academic engagement and intimate relationships in adolescence and young adulthood.
“There are definite positive outcomes for siblings as they get older and transition out of care, especially if they’re able to pass a milestone like a graduation, the celebration between them is like nothing else,” said Overton, of Portland’s Black Parent Initiative. “Even in the midst of a huge (resource) family, they know what they’ve been through together, what they’ve overcome and what they were able to accomplish.”
If siblings cannot stay together, resource parents can help their child deal with the pain of a severed sibling connection with professional help.
“Can we soften the blow?” asks clinical social worker Christine Tangle, director of Spence-Chapin’s pre- and post-adoption department. “I would answer, absolutely. The way to do that right is through openness in those relationships,” Tangle said, emphasizing the need for professionals and caregivers alike to commit to keeping siblings connected.
“If we‘re all focused on the same goal, making sure the child you are raising and loving gets what they need. There may be barriers to getting there, but knowing kids are best served by knowing all of their family members and having access to all of their information, will serve everybody well.”
Yusef Presley spent the better part of his youth cycling in and out of approximately 100 foster homes and was briefly jailed for refusing medications designed to control his behavior and emotions.
Adopted at age 14 by the same aunt who cared for his sister, Presley credits her “genuine love” for changing his life.
“In foster care, I didn’t have stability and I missed out on a lot of things. I wanted to play sports, but that opportunity was taken from me. I didn’t have that connection with my siblings, that was taken from me too. But, my aunt’s love inspired me to do better,” Presley said.
Now 26, Presley is NACAC’s 2023 Youth Advocate of the Year and a Soros Justice Fellow. He currently studies organizational leadership and learning. Presley’s film, “Kansas Throwaways: The Mishandling of the Most Vulnerable Youth Population,“ documents the intersection of mental health and the juvenile justice system. Currently in post-production, the film is expected to debut at film festivals in summer 2023. •
The on-line version of this story was updated as follows: Buckner International is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, not Amarillo. We apologize for any confusion.
Valarie Edwards is the assistant editor for Fostering Families Today. She and her sisters spent nearly a dozen years in foster care. Nominated for an Emmy and the recipient of numerous journalism awards, Edwards is an alum of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.