“Throughout history, and in all human cultures, the family has been acknowledged as one of the essential social institutions.” – Dr. J. J. McDowall

This National Families Week, we are focusing on the need to keep siblings together in foster care. But why does this matter? What benefits are there for siblings in being placed together? Or what are the negative effects where they are separated?

Two recent reports have looked into this issue and come up with a variety of reasons why it is important for sibling groups to be placed together in foster care, wherever possible. The Rees Centre, at Oxford University, recently released this report looking at international studies from the UK, the US, Australia & Canada. Australia’s CREATE Foundation also looked at this issue and released a report in 2015. Both these reviews firmly support the co-placement of siblings in care, unless there is a justifiable, child-centred reason for separation.

The sibling bond is one of the most important and enduring relationships an individual may have over the course of their lifetime. The heightened significance of sibling relationships for kids in foster care has been identified in these reports (and the wide research they review) as a source of protection and healing for them.

Children in foster care have already been removed from their biological family, and face the difficulty of finding their identity – working out who they are – apart from that basic unit that most of us take for granted. Children entering foster care are often removed from all of their former community, social and activity-based connections. The presence of a sibling living with them can help to provide a sense of emotional continuity and safety for children in an otherwise unfamiliar situation.

Nurturing sibling bonds not only reduce the impact of some of the negative occurrences while in care, but also provide a valuable support well into adulthood. The Rees Centre report found that outcomes, including mental health outcomes, for children placed with siblings in foster care are mostly better than for those placed apart from their siblings. They do note, though, that some young people with very severe behavioural issues seem to benefit from being placed apart.

Individuals who experience stronger sibling relationships while in foster care have greater levels of social support, self-esteem, income, and continuing adult sibling relationships

The CREATE report found that individuals who experienced stronger sibling relationships while in foster care had greater levels of social support, self-esteem, income, and continuing adult sibling relationships than did those who did not have continued childhood relationships. Further, stability and permanency in foster placements are more likely to be achieved when siblings are together. Interestingly, children and young people placed with one or more sibling were not only more likely to feel emotionally supported, but also to feel closer to their caregivers. Children placed in intact sibling groups also experienced more stability and fewer disruptions in care than those who were separated.

This shows that foster care agencies need to recruit more foster carers who are able and willing to foster sibling groups, such as people with greater housing capacity and those with more experience in caring for multiple children with a range of needs. In the face of many siblings being placed separately, it is important too that foster carers are committed to helping facilitate contact between siblings placed apart.

These two reports make clear that children really do benefit from maintaining close relationships with their siblings when they enter foster care – not only at the time, but also across the rest of their lives.

Could you open your heart and home to provide stability to a sibling group?