As a social worker in the District of Columbia’s foster care system, I was often saddened to see siblings separated for a variety of reasons. We do not know how many siblings are separated nationwide, but studies have found that “a substantial number” of children in foster care were not placed with all of their siblings who were also in care. This issue has not been studied at all since 2008.
Gordon Johnson, head of the Illinois Department of Children and Families in the 1980’s, was deeply perturbed by the separation of siblings already traumatized by removal from their families. When he became head of Hull House in Chicago, Johnson developed a new approach that enabled siblings to be placed in the same foster home. In 1998, Johnson brought the program to Florida as the non-profit Neighbor-to-Family (NTF), which now operates at multiple sites in four states.
NTF has several salient features:
- Most importantly, NTF places one sibling group per foster family. In exceptional cases, a very large sibling group might be split between two or more homes, but the foster families are responsible for making sure that the children see each other regularly.
- Foster caregivers are “an integral part of the therapeutic team … making decisions about the future of the children.” They are required to report regularly on the children’s progress, to mentor birth parents, and to help coordinate therapy and medical care. Foster parents need 70 hours of training to become licensed and 50 hours per year thereafter.
- Clinical services are integral to the program. Therapists work directly for the program, ensuring coordination with foster parents and social workers.
- Birth parents and extended family receive intensive services and outreach. Traditional foster care programs have the social worker serve both the parent and the children, which can result in worker burnout and service delays. NTF assigns a separate Family Advocate to each birth family.
Despite NTF’s many strengths, state policies limit the number of children who can benefit from this approach. All states have different foster care payment rates for children depending on their special needs. In some states, siblings with special needs cannot be placed in the same home as children without them, so they must be separated. Some states and localities have worked with NTF to find ways to keep siblings together in that scenario.
Originally, NTF foster caregivers received a salary and benefits. In exchange at least one foster parent per home was required to give up paid employment. That is no longer the case. Many states have prohibited foster parents from being employed by foster care agencies. This forced NTF to stop paying salaries and benefits to foster parents.
Instead, NTF adds a stipend to the regular state foster care payment. Because foster parents no longer receive benefits, NTF no longer requires that one foster parent give up paid employment. However, the program still requires that foster parents put the needs of the child first. They must be willing to take time off work for school meetings, doctor’s appointments, and the like.
Data suggest NTF is working. Children in NTF homes are reunited with their birth families faster than other children in foster care. The average length of stay in an NTF home was 8.57 months in 2014, as compared to the national average of 27.2 months. NTF is rated as a promising practice by the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse on Child Welfare. This rating was based on a study showing that NTF performed better than traditional foster care on indicators including placement stability, placement with siblings, moves to more restrictive settings, and reunification.
Unfortunately, NTF serves only about 500 children in total. Perhaps states and localities are unwilling to spend the additional money this program model requires. Federal support could help make the NTF model the default option for sibling groups. The model could be required for federal reimbursement; alternatively, an enhanced federal reimbursement rate could be provided for children served under this model.
Bureaucratic barriers that separate siblings should be eliminated. States should be encouraged to allow foster parents to be employees, thus allowing the original NTF model to be restored. As I argued in a previous column, professionalizing foster care would help ensure a sufficient supply of foster parents who are passionate about helping children.
Marie K. Cohen is a former child welfare caseworker for Washington, D.C. She previously worked as a policy analyst and researcher at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the Welfare Information Network, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the University of Maryland Welfare Reform Academy.