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The Ties That Bind: Keeping Siblings Together in Foster Care

By: Tzivy Ross  

Imagine you are 7 years old and your older sister is both playmate and role model. In the light of day you share childhood rituals, toys, games and laughs, and in the dark of night you share whispers, tears and secrets, all of which deeply influence your personal growth and development. 

Now imagine you are that same child but without the parental security which most children take for granted. Your father is passive and uninvolved and your mother is anxious and easily overwhelmed. You sense this and do not want to upset an already tense household, so you quietly try to be a "good girl" and not make too many demands on your parents. But you are 7 years old so when the time inevitably comes that you skin your knee or are taunted by a classmate and the tears well up in your eyes, it is your big sister that you turn to, and it is her little arms that envelope you in a warm and comforting hug. 

Sibling relationships play a crucial role in childhood development. For most children, the sibling relationship is the primary peer relationship which sets the foundation for future peer relationships. Drawing upon the complexity and strength of the sibling relationship, a child learns to develop trusting relationships with his or her peers and family. 

The mutual dependence and strength of the relationship between siblings is often increased for children of families in crisis. These children can rely on one another excessively, united in their insecurity and anxiety over their parentsÂ’ inability to meet their needs. Frequently, one of the siblings will become the "parentified child," taking on the caregiving responsibilities in the family for the parents who have sadly been unable to manage them.

If the parental neglect ultimately leads to the placement of the children into foster care, their fear and instability is magnified and so is their need to cling to one another for comfort and security. It is at these times that it is crucial that the trauma of these children, who have already been victimized by neglectful or abusive situations in their home, is not compounded by a devastating separation from one another. 

At OHEL we are faced with this Solomon-like dilemma on a regular basis. When the city’s Administration for Children’s Services places Jewish children into OHEL’s Milton Schulman Foster Care Program, it often occurs in groups of siblings. This presents a challenge to OHEL’s Homefinding division in locating a foster home willing to take in more than one child at a time. When three or more children from one family are placed into OHEL, this dilemma becomes particularly heart-wrenching as the very real possibility exists that one or more of these children will have to be placed alone, apart from his or her siblings. Unless there are specific reasons why a child’s needs would best be met in an environment where he or she will receive individualized attention, the separation of siblings is avoided wherever possible. 

An OHEL foster mother recently described her experiences with two foster children, a little girl, Aliza, and her younger brother, Moshe. "Their entire first week in my home, Aliza kept getting up in the middle of the night to run into Moshe’s room and check on him, reassuring herself that he was still there, that he was safe, and only then would she allow herself to go back into her room and fall asleep in peace." 

The presence of their siblings provides foster children with a sense of familiarity, stability and the preservation of their family identity in an environment that is new, unfamiliar and frightening to them. Children in foster care may also experience a grief process including stages of anger, sadness and ultimately, acceptance of their situation. This grief is diffused through the comfort of the shared burden between brothers and sisters and the ongoing nurturing of their relationship. 

Caring for multiple foster children certainly is accompanied by multiple challenges. Parentified children are often reluctant to relinquish this role to their foster parents, and may have difficulty trusting that an adult will finally be able to give them the care and security that they deserve. Foster siblings, even if enmeshed, have very individual needs and thus the responsibilities of foster parents are compounded. However, the rewards are compounded as well. How does one measure the gift of a brother or sister? How can one describe that moment of joy in the face of sorrow, relief in the darkness of the inconsolable, kinship in the shadow of isolation? 

Now imagine again that you are that 7 year old little girl. Except now you have just been taken from the only home that you have ever known, by strangers from the city in the middle of the night, with no clothing or possessions to call your own. You see your big sister trying to be brave, but her lip is trembling and you can tell that she is fighting back tears. She asks the strangers repeatedly where you are being taken and if you will be able to stay together, but they do not answer her. What you don’t know is that their failure to respond is not due to cruelty but to uncertainty, and with each passing moment of silence your panic and anxiety increases. You start to shiver, and so your sister takes off her mittens and gives them to you. It is not the thin wool that warms you but the gesture. You grab her hand and hold it so tightly that it hurts because you are afraid that if you let go you will lose her. 

Finally you fall asleep, and when you wake up you are in front of a house that you have never seen before. The strangers try to coax you and your sister out of the car but you refuse to go because you are afraid it will be the last time you will see each other. For the first time that you can remember, your big sister does not look so brave. The strangers smile and tell you not to worry, that you will be able to live together in your new foster home. 

Your eyes fill with tears and you look at the couple standing in front of this strange, new house. You don’t know these people, your new foster parents, and you are only 7 years old so you cannot fully realize the magnitude of the gift that they have given you. But somehow you feel the first measure of comfort and security that you have felt in a long time, as you take your sister’s hand and you tentatively take your first steps together toward your new home. 

OHEL currently has a shortage of foster families for Jewish children in need of foster care, particularly families who are willing to take in sibling groups and children who are developmentally disabled. We are actively looking for families with a special ability to meet those needs. OHEL foster parents receive a monthly stipend and are reimbursed for all expenses related to caring for an OHEL foster child. OHEL foster parents receive ongoing training, guidance and support when a child is in their home. If you are interested in becoming a foster parent, please call OHEL at (718) 851-6300. 

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