Sibling Contact – what the literature tells us

Because I love them and they’re the most closest people to me; they’re important to me (young person in interview, 2011)

Siblings are very important to children. For children and young people in care the situations surrounding sibling relationships are often highly complex. The number of siblings they have, the time they enter care and the diversity of care situations all contribute to the complexity.  Even who children identify as their siblings can be different to what we would expect.
The Office of the Guardian for Children and Young People is well advanced in its inquiry about what children in care say about contact with their siblings and the impact sibling contact has on wellbeing.  The inquiry includes a literature review which is summarised here.   The forthcoming report will have evidence from a random audit of a hundred case files of children with siblings, and the views of children and young people about contact with their siblings and the effects on them of co-placement, contact and separation.

Most English language dictionaries define a sibling as ‘a brother or sister’ but children in care often form important sibling-like relationships with non-blood relatives.  Culture also plays a major role in defining who is a sibling. The family structure of Indigenous Australians differs significantly from that of Europeans.  Skin, moiety and clan all factor into the definition of family and therefore the definition of a sibling.[1] When making decisions that affect a child it is therefore best to go with the child’s views about who is their brother or sister.

They’re my little brothers. I’ve kind of missed out on seeing them grow up.  Even though I did see them once a fortnight, I didn’t really know them that well. (young person in interview, 2011)

Interaction with siblings can teach social play, cooperation, positive peer interaction, conflict resolution, how their behaviour impacts others, and empathy.  Research from the UK and US has found that sibling relationships provide an ameliorating effect against the trauma, guilt and grief that children often experience prior to and when entering the child protection system and assist in the development and maintenance of self-esteem, identity, permanence and love.[2]

At other times, a child’s stability and psychological wellbeing may be undermined by being placed with siblings, outweighing the benefits of co-placement.  Research has found there is little focus on attachment as a significant area of assessment when considering placement options for siblings.[3] American researcher David Whelan argues that sibling attachment should be a major factor in placement decisions.  He says that assessment of siblings’ relationships and the impact on future attachment is imperative and will lead to improved decision making when determining whether sibling groups should remain intact.[4]

The literature showed that, whilst child protection policy often supports the maintenance of sibling relationships, there is a lack of practical guidance for social workers in deciding about placement and contact with siblings.[5] In practice there are other factors, like lack of suitable placement options, siblings placed far away from each other and siblings moved into care at different times, which mean that co-placement or sufficient contact does not eventuate.

Australian researcher Cas O’Neill suggests that placement decisions made in a time of crisis should be reviewed shortly afterwards, especially when sibling groups are separated following emergency removal from their birth family. [6]

Children and young people will have views and can give advice on what would work for them if siblings must be separated. A brother by birth might ‘rank’ as more important than a brother in a foster family, and a foster sister might outrank a half-sister. Appearances may also be deceiving, with a child’s closest sibling sometimes being the one they fight with the most.

It is necessary to seek children’s opinions when devising sibling contact plans and placement, even if all their wishes cannot be met, and to regularly review such plans because their views may change over time.

[1] Families SA 2009, Clinical guidelines for undertaking psychological assessments with Aboriginal Families within Families SA, Department for Families and Communities, Adelaide, pp. 14-15.

[2] Herrick, MA & Piccus W 2005, ‘Sibling connections: The importance of nurturing sibling bonds in the foster care system’, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 27, pp. 850-851; and Jones, AM 1999, We are Family: Sibling Relationships in Placement and Beyond, ed. A Mullender, British Association for Adoption and Fostering, London, pp. 171-180.

[3] O’Neill, C 2002, ‘Together or separate? Siblings placements: a review of the literature’, Children Australia, vol. 27, no. 2, p. 11.

[4] Whelan, DJ 2003, ‘Using Attachment Theory When Placing Siblings in Foster Care’, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, vol. 20, no. 1, September, pp. 21-30.

[5] Tarren-Sweeney, M & Hazell P 2005, ‘The mental health and socialization of siblings in care’, Children and Youth Services Review, vol. 27, p. 822.

[6] O’Neill, C 2002, ‘Together or separate? Siblings placements: a review of the literature’, Children Australia, vol. 27, no. 2, p. 12-13.

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