Before Alan Abutin even sat down for a haircut, he was greeted with a jaw-dropping surprise. When his barber’s chair spun around, Abutin was met with a familiar face. The 16-year-old Abutin hadn’t seen his older brother in years, but there he was at the same barbershop, at the same time he was.
Abutin and his three siblings were separated more than 20 years ago, when the four entered foster care. Unlike his brothers and sister, Abutin was adopted at age 5, and despite living just 15 minutes away from family, he had no contact with his siblings. For years he felt isolated as a young Black man growing up in a predominantly white Connecticut town.
“I felt lonely a lot of times and misplaced, and it was hard for me socially at times to make relationships or to feel accepted,” he recently told The Imprint. “It was very hard for me to develop a sense of self in my adopted family.”
Following his chance encounter with his brother at the barbershop and other coincidental meetings in the neighborhood, Abutin began to forge relationships with his brother and two sisters as an adult. Now 24, Abutin has come to relish visits with his siblings and their families, including the warmth of holiday celebrations. But he is mindful of what he missed out on as a child.
“I just think of my best moments with my sister and I’m just like, wow, if I could have had this every single day or just once a month growing up, what would my life have been like?” Abutin said. “All my depression and loneliness is cured with a smile from my sister or a joke from my brother.”
Like Abutin, thousands of children across the nation often find themselves cut off from their siblings when they are adopted or enter foster care. After parental rights are terminated in child welfare cases, children become eligible for adoption, but many times they also lose all familial ties, including ties shared with siblings.
Advocates are fighting to preserve those critical bonds through legislative efforts aimed at giving more children a greater chance to retain and nurture those ties. A bill currently working its way through the California Legislature would provide adopted children with more opportunities to maintain connections with their brothers and sisters, while recent laws in states like New Jersey are allowing all siblings in foster care greater opportunities to stay connected.
Backed by research and bolstered by the testimony of youth who’ve grown up in foster care, the benefits of keeping siblings connected are evident: siblings can be a protective factor, helping to ease the transition into care and minimizing the trauma of being uprooted from family and community.
Since the 2008 passage of the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, social workers are required to make “reasonable efforts” to maintain sibling connections. That includes ensuring siblings stay together whenever possible and providing children with opportunities for visitation and ongoing contact, unless such contact would harm the well-being of any of the siblings.
However, sibling separation remains commonplace and is associated with poor outcomes. A 2020 Casey Family Programs brief estimated that between 53 and 85% of children remained separated from at least one sibling while in foster care. A failure to preserve relationships between siblings is linked with moves to different foster families, poorer performance in school and behavioral health issues.
“For foster children, siblings are their history. Siblings are a critical part of how they share their grief, and siblings are where they learn social interaction and unconditional love and acceptance.”— Lynn Price, Camp To Belong
Lynn Price, founder of Camp To Belong — a program offering siblings in foster care a chance to strengthen their bond by spending time together at a weeklong camp — said relationships between siblings are often taken for granted in child welfare cases, when most of the focus is directed on working to reunite parents with children.
Sibling connections are often most people’s longest relationship in life, she said, and a way to help youth in foster care build lifelong family bonds.
“For foster children, siblings are their history,” Price said. “Siblings are a critical part of how they share their grief, and siblings are where they learn social interaction and unconditional love and acceptance.”
In recent years, many states have focused their efforts on keeping siblings connected. In 2016, California became the first state in the nation to allow children to participate in planning sessions that would facilitate opportunities for them to stay connected after they were adopted. This year, a follow-up piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 20, would go even further by requiring social workers to bring together a child, their siblings, prospective adoptive parents and a facilitator to coordinate an agreement to guide the terms of sibling contact after an adoption. It would even include siblings who do not have a preexisting relationship.
“Ensuring that those in the foster care system have access to the essential bond of a blood relative is a basic right any child deserves,” wrote the bill’s author, Democratic Assemblymember Mike Gipson. “Often, when parental rights are terminated in child welfare cases, the adopted child loses all familial ties, including with siblings.”
The bill could also expand access to other types of family relationships. AB 20 would allow a child to petition for the ability to maintain a relationship with parents whose rights have been terminated by a court order in some circumstances.
California is not the only state increasing opportunities for siblings in foster care to have improved relationships with their kin. In January 2023, New Jersey became the latest state to extend more protections for siblings in foster care. Following similar efforts in states like Oregon, Minnesota and Colorado, New Jersey’s newly signed Sibling Bill of Rights enshrines protections for siblings in the care of the state. Those rights go further than many other states by providing specific ways social workers can nurture siblings ties, such as allowing siblings the right to call or FaceTime one another between in-person meetings and to attend birthdays and other significant milestones.
“Sibling connections should be a foundational component of child welfare. It shouldn’t just be a cherry on top for a lucky few.”— Brittney Barros, policy expert and former foster youth
Brittney Barros, a former foster youth and a policy expert, said child welfare systems should do far more than the minimum when it comes to keeping siblings connected. Drawing on her own experiences, Barros said she hopes to turn her pain into policy. In recent years, Barros helped author federal legislation, the pending Protecting Sibling Relationships in Foster Care Act, which proposes to distribute $10 million in grants to develop innovative ways to work specifically with large groups of siblings in foster care.
Too often, she said, overworked social workers don’t focus enough on keeping siblings together and overlook the impact of separation on the well-being of young people.
“Sibling connections should be a foundational component of child welfare,” Barros said. “It shouldn’t just be a cherry on top for a lucky few.”
Barros wants youth in foster care to have more opportunities to stay in touch with siblings than she did. After entering foster care at age 14, six years would pass before she saw her two brothers and sister again. Scattered across separate foster homes and group homes in Michigan and Missouri, social workers never delivered letters the siblings wrote to one another and discouraged other types of contact, like visits.
But eventually, the four were finally able to reunite in person, a joyous occasion that is seared into Barros’ memory.
“I will never forget the warmth of the hug of my siblings, us bonded together in one tight hug, and how amazing that felt after six years of not hugging each other,” she said. “I will never forget the smile on my sister’s face and I will never forget the excitement we felt and the tears of joy.”