Siblings in Foster Care: Assessment Considerations for Child Welfare Professionals

Siblings in Foster Care: Assessment Considerations for Child Welfare Professionals


Hello, and welcome to the online training
module Siblings in Foster Care: Assessment Considerations for Child Welfare Professionals. This training is a collaborative effort between
the University of Minnesota School of Social Work and the Center for Advanced Studies in
Child Welfare. This module is part of an online training
effort that covers a wide range of topics in child welfare. In this module, I am going to talk with you
about siblings in foster care, including current research findings in this area. Welcome to the online training series. There are three primary learning objectives
for this module. These include a review of research regarding
the influence of sibling relationships on child and family development, the impact of
sibling relationships on the stability of foster care placements, permanency, and well-being,
as well as assessment considerations for child welfare professionals. In module 1, we will review the research on
the influence of sibling relationships on child and family development. Siblings are a fixture of family life. These are among the longest and most enduring
family relationships, typically forming in early childhood and continuing through adulthood
into old age. Because siblings spend so much time together
during childhood, these relationships provide an important context for developmental opportunities. Through ongoing interactions in the household,
siblings influence children’s mental health, behavior, and their social relationships. The quality of sibling relationships are particularly
important. Sibling relationships characterized by support
and warmth have been shown to promote mental health, reduce feelings of depression and
loneliness, improve self-esteem and self-image, and promote socialization with peers and adults. Positive sibling relationships also help moderate
the impact of stressful life events. Conversely, negative sibling relationships
can negatively influence children’s mental health, behavior, and their social relationships. Sibling relationships characterized by coercion,
unhealthy competition, and high levels of conflict can lead to problematic behaviors
in the home and community. Negative sibling relationships can lead to
peer difficulties and antisocial behavior, mental health problems such as depression,
and increase children’s risk of substance use and criminal behavior. Siblings can be defined a number of different
ways. Biological sibling relationships include full
siblings who share the same mother and father. Half siblings include children who share one
biological parent. Siblings can also be defined legally. This includes a relationship formed through
adoption or entry into a family system following remarriage, where children in the same home
share no biological connection but are otherwise connected through parental union. Youth in foster care, particularly in long
term placements, may form relationships which youth consider other children in the home
to be their siblings. These foster sibling relationships may or
may not include sibling relationships from other categories. In these instances, youth assign an emotional
value to the relationship while no legal protections exist. Youth perceive other children in these homes
to be their siblings. In addition to foster care arrangements, youth
may be connected informally to other youth through community and extended family networks. In both foster and kith arrangements, youth
assign a value to the relationships they share with other children that is characteristic
of a typical sibling relationship. The process through which siblings influence
the mental health, behavior, and socialization of children is informed by our understanding
of social learning theory and theories of social emotional learning. Siblings spend the majority of their daily
lives together, celebrate family milestones, transitions, and traditions. Ongoing daily interactions provide a consistent
framework for contextualizing siblings influence; this is achieved through ongoing communication,
the sharing of emotions, and observing behavior. Siblings teach and learn from one another
through observations as well as positive and negative reinforcement. A number of factors contribute to the strength
of sibling influence on children’s social, emotional, and behavioral development. The size of the sibling group will influence
the frequency, quality, and consistency of interactions among sibling group members. The age of children in the sibling group and
the developmental stage of children in the home will also influence the quality and content
of interactions among siblings. An example of differences based on the age
and developmental stage would include a sibling group of twins. In this example, the sibling group would share
developmental milestones based on their shared age. Conversely, siblings separated by many years
will not share the same developmental milestones. An example might include a younger sibling
born 15 years after their older sibling. In this example, the older sibling will be
further along in their development, and their experiences with their younger sibling would
look very different. The birth order of siblings will also shape
children’s experiences. For example, parents may employ one particular
strategy of parenting with their first born child, but through trial and error may adjust
their parenting philosophy and strategy for later born children. The gender composition of sibling groups has
also been shown to shape interactions among sibling groups. Prior research suggests that the gender composition
of the group, particularly the older sibling, will shape the nature of sibling interactions,
the degree of warmth, support, conflict, and competition among members of the sibling group. For children who live separately from their
siblings, the frequency of contact will impact the opportunity to share experiences and foster
the sibling relationship. Differential parental treatment can also impact
sibling relationships. Unequal treatment of siblings can influence
both the quality of sibling relationships and interactions, but also influence social
competence, feelings of self-worth, as well as internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Exposure to maltreatment, either directed
from the parent to the child or from sibling to sibling, can influence the nature and quality
of sibling relationships and their subsequent influence on a child’s development. Finally, removal from the family system and
placement into foster care will impact the potential for siblings to share life experiences. Through ongoing interactions through childhood,
siblings shape children’s development in a number of ways. The quality of sibling relationships can influence
children’s cognitive development and learning, their ability to socialize with parents, friends,
and peers, as well as influence their mental and behavioral health. Children who experience unhealthy or coercive
relationships with their siblings may be more likely to engage in externalizing behaviors
including bullying, substance use, early onset of sexual behavior, and delinquency. For our first reflection activity, take a
few moments to think about what you’ve learned about the ways in which siblings influence
child development. How have sibling relationships influenced
your immediate and extended family system? If you are an only child, how has the absence
of siblings shaped your development? Consider how sibling relationships have influenced
your clients lives. How have you witnessed sibling relationships,
both in your family of origin as well as in the families you work with, changed over time? In module 2, we will focus specifically on
the impact of siblings in foster care. In particular, we will give our attention
to the impact of sibling relationships on the stability of foster care placements, permanency,
and well-being as it is understood in child welfare practice. It is difficult to estimate the true prevalence
of siblings in foster care. States and the federal government do not systematically
collect sibling data, and the identification of sibling groups is complicated by the biological,
legal, cultural, and relational ways in which siblings can be defined. Further, legal definitions of siblings vary
from state to state, and casework practice does not always mandate the assessment of
families beyond the household into extended family networks. Best estimates of the prevalence of siblings
in foster care suggest that 65-85% of youth in foster care have siblings, who may or may
not themselves be in foster care. Whether or not siblings are placed into the
same foster home is influenced by a number of practical factors. First is the availability of foster homes
to accommodate sibling groups. Larger sibling groups, particularly with more
than three children, can be difficult to place and can result in sibling separation. Entering into care at the same time increases
the likelihood of sibling co-placement, and children who enter into kinship care are more
likely to remain together than children who are placed into non-relative homes. Siblings who are close in age and of the same
gender are more likely to experience co-placement than children who are not the same age or
do not share the same gender. Two primary pieces of federal legislation
have shifted the ways in which child welfare agencies respond to the needs of sibling groups
when foster care intervention is required. The fostering connections to success and increasing
adoptions act of 2008 prioritizes the co-placement of siblings whenever possible, and consistent
with the safety and well-being of the children in the sibling group. The Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening
Families Act of 2014 clarifies the adult sibling as a viable placement option when caseworkers
are considering a fit and willing relative for a kinship foster care placement. Recently, states have begun adopting what
is called a Sibling Bill of Rights. This recognizes the importance of sibling
relationships and provides guidance to local child welfare systems to preserve and strengthen
the sibling relationship. These bill of rights can include requirements
for assuring siblings are co-placed whenever possible, providing programming specifically
designed to enhance the sibling relationship, and ensuring frequent and ongoing visitation
when sibling groups are separated. A number of recent studies have highlighted
the protective effects of sibling co-placement on the stability of foster care. Siblings who are co-placed in the same foster
home are more likely to adjust and integrate in the home setting, particularly if they
live with their siblings through their entire stay in care. Co-placement is protective in both relative
and non-relative homes, however co-placement in kinship care seems to be most protective
against the potential for unwanted placement change. The protective effects of sibling co-placement
also appear for children who reunify with their siblings at later stages of their foster
care stay. Youth who live with their siblings for only
a portion of their stay in care are still less likely to experience placement change
than are children who are separated from their siblings the entire length of time they are
in foster care. Sibling co-placement also appears to benefit
youth on their journey towards permanency. Co-placed siblings are more likely to be reunified
with their parents following foster care placement than are sibling groups that are partially
intact, meaning one or more member of the sibling group is separated, or situations
where siblings are completely separated. Children who experience foster care separation
are less likely to achieve permanency through adoption or guardianship. This is true both for siblings who experience
separation through the entire course of their foster care stay as well as children who initially
experience co-placement but later experience sibling separation. Research suggests children who experience
separation from their siblings experience profound feelings of grief and loss. In these instances, the emotional toll of
separation from parents is compounded by separation from siblings. Co-placing siblings in foster care can help
buffer against the effects of foster care intervention and provide a natural support
system to children during a vulnerable and difficult time. Co-placed siblings are more likely to positively
adjust to the experience of foster care placement, feel a sense of belonging and membership in
a substitute family system, and feel integrated into their foster home. For this reflection activity consider how
your agency defines siblings. Does your agency have a policy that defines
the sibling relationship in legal, cultural, or relational terms? How does your agency identify sibling relationships
during the assessment process? Does your agency consider siblings who live
outside of the family home? How are your agencies decision making processes,
either for considerations related to foster care placement or mental or behavioral health
interventions, influenced by siblings? What might your agency do differently to promote
and strengthen sibling relationships for youth in care? In module three, we will discuss specific
assessment considerations with siblings in foster care. There are a number of potential considerations
for caseworkers and supervisors when assessing sibling groups. First, work to identify all members of the
sibling family subsystem, even those who don’t live in the home. Ask parents and children who their siblings
are. Clarify whether there are siblings who live
outside the home, such as an adult, half, or adopted siblings. Inquire as to whether there are other members
of the family who they consider to be a sibling to capture non-legal definitions of sibling
relationships that may have a symbolic or cultural significance. Talk directly to the youth to gain their perspective. Gather information from collateral sources
such as other members of the family system, teachers, and community members to gain a
well-rounded understanding of the family. In some instances caregivers may not want
to disclose the full extent of family relationships. If this is the case, explore the meaning and
reasoning behind this. There may be potential resources in the community
that could help in case planning or placement efforts when foster care intervention is required. It is also important to assess the quality
of relationship and frequency of contact among members of the sibling group. Again, it is important to gather information
from multiple sources including the children, siblings, caregivers, and other important
individuals in the family’s life. You can ask direct questions to assess the
current level of social and emotional support, the quality of sibling relationships, as well
as severity of conflict and behavioral concerns. Know that some degree of conflict in sibling
relationships is normal and developmentally appropriate. It is also important to know that sibling
relationships will differ for large groups, so avoid asking questions that lump a child’s
responses into one question. After identifying each member of the sibling
family subsystem, inquire about the quality of each sibling relationship individually. When assessing foster home placements, it
is important to know that the responses you receive will be time dependent. Children go through a period of initial adjustment
when entering a new home. After a period of time youth will adapt to
their placement, and ideally will ultimately integrate into the family system for the remaining
duration of their stay in care. The pace at which children adjust, adapt,
and integrate into foster care placements will in part be dependent on their level of
familiarity with the family system before moving into the family home. It is important to assess multiple perspectives
to gain a well-rounded picture of the sibling and family system relationships. Children, siblings, and care givers may not
always report the same information, and as the worker your task will be to make sense
of the information you’ve received from multiple sources. Assess the relationships systematically and
at multiple times to determine if the quality of sibling relationships change over time. Presently, no empirically supported assessment
tools exist specifically for siblings in foster care. However, multiple measures exist to measure
children’s perspectives of the foster home generally and the children’s relationships
to their foster caregivers. The positive home integrations scale is a
9 item measure that was validated with a sample of 328 siblings in foster care. This item asks youth to rate the quality of
the relationships to the child’s primary caregiver and their feelings of integration
into the family system. Items are positively valued on a 10 point
scale, with 1 being very low and 10 being very high. These questions are specific to the youth’s
experience in the foster home and assesses the youth’s feelings of inclusion, kindness,
respect, involvement in decision mailing, quality of relationships to their foster parent,
how well they get along with the foster parent, how well the foster parent listens,
and responds to their needs. In validation tests the positive home integration
scale correlated strongly with other indicators of child well-being, including behavior and
mental health. In addition to assessing foster homes using
this measure, you can consider modifying the questions to ask youth specifically about
the sibling relationship. For the final reflection activity think about
your professional role. What might you to do promote healthy sibling
bonds for the children and sibling groups you work with? How might your agency help ensure siblings
have the opportunity to strengthen and maintain their relationship during their stay in care? Thank you for watching this module and for
considering the importance of siblings in foster care.

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