I recently read a book that should be a must-read for all involved in child welfare policy. In Etched in Sand, Regina Calcaterra tells of being left at the age of eleven to care for her two younger siblings while her mother disappeared for weeks at a time. When she was home, her mother savagely beat the children. Chronically malnourished and living in fear, Calcaterra was responsible for feeding, clothing, and protecting her younger siblings–and making sure they looked clean and well-fed so as not to draw the attention of the authorities who might place them in foster care.
Despite her horrific childhood, the goal of Regina and her older siblings, as she said in an interview for Youtube TV, “was to never to be picked up by the authorities because when the authorities found out how we were living, they would separate us.” When Regina was finally unable to satisfactorily explain the results of a savage beating, the children were indeed taken into care and separated.
No maltreated children should have to hide their plight in order to avoid separation from each other. Yet, this is undoubtedly the situation facing many children even while you read this. I myself know two girls who, for fear of being separated, remained for two years with an uncaring guardian who diverted her guardianship stipend to her own needs. The girls only recently broke the silence, and were removed from this toxic home.
Sibling relationships are known to be critically important in emotional development in childhood and beyond, as documented in a useful publication from the Child Welfare Information Gateway. In abusive and neglectful families, sibling relationships can be even more important as siblings support each other through adverse circumstances.
Keeping siblings together in foster care provides an important element of continuity for children who have already suffered a traumatic removal from the home they had known. As the the brief cited above puts it, “For children entering care, being with their brothers and sisters promotes a sense of safety and well-being, and being separated from them can trigger grief and anxiety.” Some studies have reported poorer outcomes for children separated from their siblings in foster care.
We don’t know how many siblings are separated in foster care. Older studies indicate that a large proportion of foster children were separated from at least some of their siblings, but the proportions varied by location. Current, national data are not available.
In most cases siblings are separated for no other reason than the lack of foster homes that can accommodate siblings, especially larger sibling groups. There is a nationwide shortage of foster parents, but foster parents who are able to take more than two siblings are even more scarce.
In some states, like North Carolina and Florida, family-style group homes have been an important vehicle for keeping siblings together. Many of these homes, such as Crossnore School and Children’s Home in North Carolina and A Kid’s Place in Florida provide highly enriched services to their residents with the help of public and private philanthropic funding. These homes often use a family-style model based on houseparents that mimics a family home. Group homes are serving sibling groups in many other states, including California, Texas and New York.
Unfortunately, the recently passed Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) threatens these important havens for sibling groups and may result in mass separations of siblings. That’s because FFPSA eliminates federal funding for placement of children in congregate-care settings such as group homes beyond two weeks, unless an assessment shows that a child’s needs cannot be met with family members or in a foster family home. Moreover, group facilities must meet criteria as “Qualified Residential Treatment Programs” designed to meet the needs of “children with serious emotional or behavioral disorders.”
FFPSA is based on the widely-held belief in child welfare circles that most children do better in a family than in another type of setting. However, experts such as Dave Bundy, President and CEO of the Children’s Home Society of America, believe that it is better to keep siblings together in congregate care than to split them up among separate foster homes.
Moreover, many legislators and executives pressing for closing group homes have much more than children’s best interests at heart. The greater cost of congregate care has clearly contributed to its growing unpopularity and to the bipartisan support of FFPSA. But these comparisons are often deceptive. Facilities like Crossnore and the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches provide therapists, case managers, after-school activities, and other services, such as therapeutic riding. Moreover, they bring in substantial private funding in addition to state support. And no matter how expensive they are, they cannot cost more than keeping children in hotels and offices when there are no homes for them, which is happening around the country.
Siblings have already been separated due to the policies against congregate care that have already taken hold in some states. From 2006 to 2015, Sonoma County Children’s Village was a haven for 24 foster children, including sibling groups, who lived in four homes staffed by “village parents,” with surrogate grandparents living in onsite apartments. But after California began to limit group home placements for children requiring high levels of care, the village had to close. Sixteen children, including a group of seven siblings, had to leave. The children were devastated. They sent out appeals to the likes of Barack Obama and Taylor Swift, but to no avail.
There is another approach to housing large sibling groups which in practice looks very similar to family-style group homes. Some child welfare agencies contract with private agencies, such as Neighbor to Family in Florida and Georgia, that provide homes where siblings can live together in foster care. Some of these programs actually provide larger houses in clusters or “neighborhoods” to foster parents willing to care for large sibling groups but who don’t have the space. This clustering provides the added benefit of community support and shared facilities for recreation and other activities. Such programs include the SOS Children’s Villages in Illinois and Florida. New homes are currently being built in locations around the country including Oklahoma, and Southwest Florida. However these programs are too few and far between to make a dent on the national problem of sibling separation in foster care.
Perhaps all the group homes that keep siblings together could eventually be replaced by family foster homes with housing provided by public and private agencies. The feasibility of this approach would have to be investigated; it might be even harder to find good foster parents than it is to find good houseparents, because the latter generally have a schedule that allows time off to return to their own residences, while being replaced by a substitute couple. In any case, such a transition would take years to accomplish and could not occur in the short period preceding the implementation of the FFPSA provisions, which go into effect on October 1, 2019. States can apply for a two-year delay in implementing these provisions but then they must forego the opportunity to received federal matching funds for services to prevent foster care placements. (For a detailed explanation, see the “Cliffs’ Notes on Family First” from the Chronicle of Social Change.)
The sponsors and supporters of FFPSA likely had no idea that sibling separation might be a consequence of their legislation. Once they understand what they have done, I hope they will consider amending FFPSA to make congregate care allowable for sibling groups and provide a new funding stream to encourage jurisdictions to build foster home communities where siblings can thrive together.