Home for many foster youth with siblings is never a place. Instead, it’s being placed together, which makes enduring the transition into the system less traumatic. A sibling relationship holds a lot of important developmental factors, such as having a first friend, a true confidant, and an enthusiastic supporter, cheerleader and empathizer. Simply put, a sibling connection fosters better mental health, stability and social relationships in a young person’s life. Without this support, the bond becomes disengaged, creating greater risk of facing housing instability and putting the young person at a higher risk of experiencing depressive symptoms.
An abstract on the study from the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (NSCAW) II has shown that foster youth that maintain quality sibling relationships while in foster care have lower depression symptoms. The emotional impact that the foster care system has on young people is worsened when siblings are disconnected by juvenile detention centers, group homes or separate foster home placements. Family connection and communication is encouraged but not enforced to nurture family relationships, especially between the siblings. The strain that develops between sibling relationships occurs when communication is limited based on the time provided in visitations, making it difficult to mature organically in detention centers and group homes.
For many young people in foster care, the separation of siblings happens more frequently than it should. It’s not just about the placement of being together, but rather the lack of communication necessary to maintain the relationship. Emiley, who did not want to disclose their full name for privacy reasons, moved around a lot when she had been placed in juvenile detention centers and group homes and wasn’t able to have enough contact with their brother. “Once I entered care, our relationship started to decline. We had less communication and less chances to bond, and we never really talked about the impact of how our placements and movements within the system had on us. To this day, our relationship is pretty severed. We don’t really have one and we used to be so extremely close,” Emiley said.
They have also experienced depression symptoms due to the loss in connection with their brother. “I feel like I failed my brother because the way that I see them, they don’t seem like they’re in a good position in life. I feel like I failed to be someone that’s supposed to protect and foster a healthy relationship with him. I lost someone I considered to be my sidekick and best friend,” Emiley said.
However, there’s positive outcomes for some foster youth who, like in the case of Joel Howard-Hottman Nance, were fortunate enough to have been placed in the same home with their siblings. Nance was able to stay in the same home with his two younger sisters. They believe that foster care would have been worse if they lost connection to their siblings. “It would have absolutely crushed me. I know I would have been severely depressed and would have ended up doing things that would have had me incarcerated,” Nance said. By living together with their siblings, Nance was able to forge a deep connection that has since grown after care. “My siblings and I had to deal with the trauma and hurt together,” Nance said. “The fact that we didn’t have to go through it alone made a big difference in our relationship once we were out of care.”
Lastly, providing opportunities of reunification for foster youth with their families can be a form of support in stability and security. A 2019 compiled research report by the Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago stated that every year, nearly 4.2 million adolescents and young adults in America have experienced some form of homelessness. Also, between one-quarter and one-third of youth and young adults had a history of foster care. However, reunification with family alone does not guarantee a young person’s decreased experience of homelessness. There needs to be resources readily available to help nurture the family bonds, such as counseling to aid in the emotional welfare of the young person. By ensuring the emotional connection between a young person and their family, it can set them up for a safety net if they ever do experience homelessness because at least, they can be safe with family rather than on the streets.
So what is it that can help young people living in foster homes, group homes or detention centers improve their sibling connections and limit chances of homelessness? The system can start by working together within the child welfare spectrum to encompass a holistic approach for the well-being of the youth through reunification, followed by family counseling, and establishing a strong communication policy between siblings. It can be understandable that placing siblings together is challenging. But keeping regular contact should not be, especially since a sibling can be the crucial part in the support system for when they exit foster care. For Emiley, seeing her sibling at least once a week would have helped to restore the family connection. For some foster youth like Emiley, special occasions and holidays were spent alone. “We didn’t have any special times or holidays to spend with each other [because] we didn’t really have the right resources to reconnect with each other or the time,” Emiley said.
Home is what foster youth make of it. Sibling relationships should always be nurtured, encouraged and appropriately developed by the community or agencies supporting and serving these youth. For these young people to grow, the system has to grow and change too. That change can start with advocating for better sibling connections, family reunification, and proper resources surrounding emotional/mental well-being during these transitions. Home isn’t perfect, but the imperfections are what make it a home.