Sometimes Siblings Need to be Separated.
If I had read this title just a few short years ago, I would have deleted this email or skipped this post before I read any further. I would not have respected someone who could write such cruel, heartless things, nor been able to listen long enough to process such a seemingly cold-hearted statement.
What monster could write such horrible things and call them truths???
I wouldn’t have been able to read it, so I’m begging you to give me a minute to hear me out, now that I’m on the other side. Sort of.
When we got the call for Little Buddy, the agency had very limited information on his background. All I heard from that call was a smattering of details, and that he had two brothers also in care, and that he needed to be separated from them because his current placement was too difficult for his foster family to handle all of them together.
I thought about those boys all weekend long. I scoured the internet for triple bunks to allow us to be able to house them all. They didn’t deserve to be separated. They needed to be together. And every statistic and study and seminar all tell you the same thing: siblings do better when they are together.
I called my mother to get her to help me sort all this mess out, and we hashed it out together, eventually deciding that I was right in my facts and my feelings and I needed to advocate to fix this injustice for these boys. We could not bear the thought of children being separated from their siblings.
I called the agency back first thing Monday morning and asked them if we could keep them all together. I explained my thoughts and reminded them of the trainings that taught us about siblings and tried to persuade them that we should do what’s best for the kids. “We understand, Tara,” they told me. “But hold off on the bunk beds for now… let’s just get this little guy situated and see how it goes from there.”
I was a little miffed and puzzled and frustrated, but what else could I do? They seemed confident in their decision, and this was my first rodeo.
Man, were they right.
When you first get that call for foster care, you are signing on to the Unknown. Even the most obvious open-and-shut cases can have the wildest 180 degree turns: parents that completely turn their life around, long distance relatives that show up at the 11th hour, appeals and case delays that keep you going for years… no one can truly tell you how the case will turn out. It is impossible to know. You are signing on to the Unknown for the children, too: you don’t know who they are, what they’ve been exposed to, what abuse or neglect has come their way, nor how it has affected them. Some children who have lived the worst horror stories go on to have the greatest lives they could have dreamed, while others who had not faced nearly as many obstacles respond so differently they cannot seem o get past their trauma and grief. You cannot know where in that spectrum your foster baby will fall, nor can you know how they will grow through it. You just have to stand in that space with them as they work through their grief, sorrow, anger and pain.
That was something the agency understood. In their wildest grief, kids need a safe place to land where they can be free to process the trauma they have endured. The very act of being removed from their home is a heavy enough trauma to create more pain and heartache, regardless of whether the situation was unstable or not. It is the only home they have ever known, and all that is familiar to them. To take them away from it all is a loss, and it needs to be treated as such.
If a child has lived that nightmare with his other siblings, it may just be the best thing for that child to be separated for a time to heal. I know with our little guy, it was months before we found out that he had been physically abused by one of his older brothers and was petrified to be around him… and here I was, begging for the agency to bring them all to me, to live together in my home.
This concept was just so foreign to me, because I had never seen it played out. In my own home with my own children, we rallied together, we looked out for each other, and we succeeded as a team, as a family. We had the kind of children that covered each others’ ears when the fireworks got too loud on the Fourth of July and never complained about coordinating outfits on road trips so I could keep track of them… How could I have possibly imagined anything other than that?
There was more information we did not know, either, and it was weeks and months before we put the pieces together: there were not just the three brothers. There were five kids total. And it was not the older brothers that our Little Buddy was originally living with, it was his younger brother and sister, so young and wild and scared and hurting that their foster parents could not handle all three of their very individual needs at one time.
It was chaos for all of them, for all of us, for so many months.
The visits, the meetings, the reports, the appointments, the putting the pieces together to make a good life for these kids while every one of us rallied to get them safe, healthy and back home again.
And rally we did. It took three foster homes to keep this one family together, and we never worked so hard in our lives. The messages flew between us at all hours of the night, odd hours during the day, and all the moments in between. “What does he like to eat?” I texted his first foster mom as I flew through the grocery store to make a huge Supermarket Sweep the day he was moving in. Within minutes I got a reply: “Spaghetti, salad, and M & Ms to bribe him to do good things” she listed. Off I ran to collect the supplies to start, and in he came to change our lives forever.
Some messages were not so cut and dried to respond to. Late one night I messaged foster mom again: “How did you get him to sleep? How did you get him to listen to you?” Those answers did not come so easily, and sometimes all she could offer was her encouragement, kindness and prayers.
The siblings got to see each other at weekly visitation and after awhile it became unclear whether the stress of the visits, the fights among bio parents and siblings, or the chaos in general was causing the grief or was helping them in any way. I began to see the reasoning behind the initial sibling separation playing out right in front of my eyes: a safe place to land is a good beginning, but the healing process from then on is the next necessary part of the journey to help these kids.
In a broken system, people get hurt. Good people, and children. People trying to help as well as innocent children who don’t know anything different. Broken hearts sometimes seem like collateral damage, yet in the life of the one whose heart has been broken, they will be forever changed. The foster care system is broken, and if we are not willing to let ourselves endure some of the pain of that brokenness, we cannot expect a better world for our own children and our children’s children.
The year went on, the visits got worse and the case was taking a turn for permanency that did not include the kids’ biological parents. Those parents loved their children very much and could not bear the thought of losing them, but family history, addiction and other factors weighed in harder than their heartache at the loss of their children.
We rallied some more with each other. There were some shifts in homes with some of the kids while we tried to get the kids more permanency, and we held on and just kept communicating, somehow creating a ragtag family thrown together seemingly by circumstance and held together by sheer will and commitment to the success of these children.
We threw birthday parties together. We went to other schools to see Christmas concerts together. We had cook outs and park outings and ice cream runs and FaceTime calls.
We spent our New Year’s Eve all together (including their case worker!!!) at a bowling alley to keep those siblings together. It was not their fault what happened to them, and they deserved to see each other doing well in a safe environment. It was both a responsibility and a privilege to be a part of these moments in their lives.
Do you want to know how a child processes that level of emotion when you have a sibling visit? When someone they love so much yet fear so much is right in the same room as their safe people?
How well would you handle that?
Take that visual and multiply it by a factor of someone who never learned life skills and tools to process their grief and fear and loss and pain.
That’s a fraction of what that looks like.
Enduring the emotional backlash of sibling visits is something that still challenges me to this day. It sometimes feels more like a responsibility than a privilege. A lot of times it feels more like a responsibility than a privilege. There have been times we’ve had to back out of parties or outings or fun meet ups just because the kids were already spiraling and we couldn’t catch any more spin. It is heart wrenching and guilt gutting and it is easy to feel condemnation for saying no to the thing that “should be” such a joyous occasion.
But sibling visits alone are evidence that trauma has occurred.
If you have to be in the position of attending sibling visits in the first place, that probably means that they have been removed from their biological home and are in the foster care system.
That means that you are taking on the job of picking up broken pieces, assessing repairs and trying to help piece them back together.
And sometimes that just cannot happen.
We fought for those parents to get their kids back. We prayed for them to make better choices, and break family generational patterns. With our bio and foster children alike, we prayed that God would do miracles in their parents’ lives and that they would know Him and He would be with them through this process.
We prayed those things even when our kids threw the worst tantrums ever, their grief spinning them out of control. We prayed those things even when our kids caused so much havoc from their disassociative behavior and fear we thought our family would split in two. We prayed those things when it seemed the world was on fire in and all around our home, and we could barely muster enough strength to say any words out loud, never mind prayers to restore something so broken that we had been hurt so badly by…
And when the broken system finally said enough is enough, we said yes, we will take a sister too.
Want to know how scary that was for Little Buddy? I wrote a little bit about it here one time.
But essentially what happened was that we had invaded his safe place. The last time he had lived with her had been the darkest and scariest time in his life. (He literally could not see well, and his eyes and brain are still healing from how long of his life he went without glasses that corrected his vision.)
And now she was living with us.
The only way we knew we could survive was that we knew it was God; we knew it was what we were supposed to do.
He didn’t say it was easy; He just told us what to do.
There was grace and we saw miracles, but there has been a shift in our life that I know we will never be the same again.
And that is probably a good thing, but it’s too exhausting and heavy on me right now to paint too much of the silver lining in this one post.
But if I can speak to the cause of these siblings, I can tell you that there IS a happily ever after for these guys. It is possible and it can happen.
Two of the children are being adopted in to family members, and are so loved and cared for. Another is being adopted in to his original foster home, where he has been since the day he was removed from his biological home. He is beating the statistic that the average child in foster care can be moved 4-6 times, and has told his case worker that he is happy to be adopted and has settled in nicely. And as for us, we have the other two siblings, which makes all five situated and moving towards permanency.
It has been such a hard road for these kids, and we still have a bit farther to go. The court system is not kind to children’s needs, and biological parental rights trump the needs of the children more times than I care to admit or write about. These kids continue to persevere and heal and grow on the other side of trauma and nightmares that you or I can only imagine. They are brave and courageous and even in spite of the gnawing fear of new things, new faces, new beginnings and new lives glaring at them and forcing them to face these challenges, they are still doing it. Every.Single.Day.
So very many people have had a hand in their healing and growing and new life transitions: our case workers and family workers, their teachers and our own families. Their doctors and counselors and play therapists. In home counselors and dentists, case managers and school staff. The list is truly endless if I think about it a moment.
And all of us foster parents? As we become adoptive parents or graduated to “Aunts” or “Uncles” or just fun-loving “relatives” who stood with these kids in their darkest times, we ARE making a path for siblings to stay together. There are still birthdays to be celebrated, holiday concerts to attend, and bowling traditions to hold to. Thanks to modern technology, we can FaceTime each other or send a text or photo virtually any time so each child can build healthy relationships in their safe spaces.
It takes time. So, so much time. But even as it is so hard and looks so ugly at times, it can be beautiful.
And if I could speak to myself two years ago when I got that call about our Little Buddy, I would have said exactly what our agency did: “Just hold on, let’s get everybody situated and then take it from there.”
There are so many moving pieces and parts to the system, and when you throw in the unpredictability of Life itself, you just make the best choice in the moment and live your best until the next choice comes along.
Very few things on this side of Heaven are permanent, and foster care is not one of them.
So cheers to all my fellow foster mamas out there who share their most sacred space, and sacrifice the peace in their home for the grief and pain that a child needs to unpack inside their safe walls.
Cheers to all the foster dads out there who step in and step up to be what these kids need them to be: a strong and kind example to change the world.
Cheers to all the foster siblings out there who sacrifice silently: their home, their ‘normal’ life, their very parents and their peace for kids that are too afraid to be thankful.
I see you. I see all of you. And I’m so very grateful for your story and your sacrifice.
“And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.”
Matthew 18:5 NLT