Approximately two-thirds of children in foster care have one or more siblings also in foster care. Unfortunately, an estimated 70 percent of these siblings are separated from each other during the initial foster placement, or when a sibling is permanently adopted.
For children already dealing with separation from a biological parent, losing that connection with a brother or sister can be devasting for their health and well-being. Severing that critical bond often compounds underlying feelings of loss, anxiety, and trauma.
If you have a child in the foster system or are curious about how to connect your own foster child with their brother or sister, this article will provide some guidance and action steps you can take to support that relationship.
Defining What it Means to Be a Sibling
Before we explore the experience of siblings in the foster care system and the importance of these relationships, it is helpful to explore all of the definitions of “sibling” in this context.
“Sibling” obviously primarily refers to a full biological sibling. For foster children, relationships with half-siblings, step-siblings, foster siblings, and adopted siblings are often just as valuable as those with children who share the same biological parents.
The Sibling Connection is Vital to the Child’s Health and Well-Being
Child protection investigations and subsequent placements can be traumatic for many children.
In families where parents are unable to meet their children’s needs to the extent that the children must be removed from the home, those children are likely to form extremely close bonds among themselves. Very often it is these sibling relationships that provide emotional protection against the uncertainty and instability they experience when a family structure shifts.
When healthy sibling bonds are severed, children can experience grief, anger, and a deep sense of loss. Without the support of a sibling, children in foster care have trouble healing, may find it difficult to form healthy attachments, and may suffer from poor self-image.
Benefits of Healthy Sibling Relationships
Research points to many reasons to preserve and promote siblings relationships in the foster care system. All lead to better outcomes for children who have been removed from the family home.
These benefits include:
- Better adjustment in the new home.
- Better performance in school.
- Fewer days in placement.
- Increased rates of reunification.
- Increased mental well-being.
- Less behavioral and emotional difficulties.
Why Are Siblings in Foster Care Separated?
The Department of Children and Families in New Jersey makes every attempt to keep siblings together in foster care when it is in the children’s best interests, and when it is safe. The importance of a strong sibling bond for foster and adopted children is clear.
Why are so many of these children separated from their siblings? There are a few reasons.
- It is not always possible to find a foster home that can accommodate multiple children until they can be reunited with their birth families or placed with an adoptive or guardianship family. Foster parents may not have the space, time, or financial means to properly provide for a group of siblings.
- Adoption is an enormous emotional and financial commitment. Many adoptive families only want to adopt a single child or can only realistically meet the needs of one child. It is challenging to find adoptive families who are wiling and able to adopt a large sibling group.
- In other cases, siblings are separated because of drastic age gaps or because they need different levels of support and care. In some areas, training, staff, and other resources to support foster and adoptive families caring for multiple siblings are inadequate or nonexistent.
Siblings in New Jersey Have Visitation Rights
Foster and adopted children in New Jersey have rights when it comes to contact with their siblings.
The New Jersey Supreme Court provides guidelines for visitation rights for siblings who are separated due to intervention by the Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCPP.) In New Jersey, foster and adopted children have the right to see their sibling after they have been adopted, even if their adopted parents do not support the relationship.
It takes a team effort to ensure the rights of the child are protected at every step and stage of the placement process. The courts, child protection agencies, foster families, and adoptive families all have an obligation to foster and support sibling connections when they are safe and healthy for every child involved.
New Jersey Guidelines for Parent, Child, and Sibling Visitation
In accordance with N.J.A.C. 3A:15-1.1, DCPP must ensure children in out-of-home placement have visits with their family. That includes parent(s), siblings, and other interested relatives. The goal of family visitation is to maintain family relationships and provide stability, consistency, and permanency for children impacted by DCPP intervention.
The first step to schedule visitation is to give notice to the DCPP. If everyone is on board, all involved parties meet together at a Family Team Meeting to make arrangements for the first sibling meeting. This meeting happens early in the placement process, sometimes even before the children are placed with families.
Within five days of the child’s placement, a follow-up plan for future sibling visits must be provided in writing. Within 45 days of placement, the visitation plan must be revised by DCPP if needed. From there, visitation plans should be reviewed and revised every six months.
My Foster Child Is Being Denied Visitation with a Sibling. What Should I Do?
If a child is denied visitation with a sibling, they have recourse to take action and ensure those visits take place, if the court approves. Per NJ Rev Stat § 9:2-7.1 (2013), grandparents and siblings of children in the state can file an application before the Superior Court for an order of visitation.
The applicant has the burden of proof to prove by a preponderance of evidence that visitation is in the best interests of the child. After all, every determination is made to protect the child’s health and well-being.
To make that determination, the court considers several factors, including:
- The relationship between the child and the applicant (or the sibling.)
- How long it has been since the child and applicant were in contact.
- Any history of abuse or neglect by the applicant.
- Any other factor that impacts the child’s best interests.
In some cases, a sibling relationship is deemed to be unhealthy or unsafe for either child. That is why the courts review every child’s individual circumstances carefully to assess what is best for them. If there is a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in a sibling relationship for example, the courts may deny the application and prevent visits in the future.
Do I Need a Lawyer to Help Get Sibling Visitation?
Family matters that involve DCPP intervention are often fraught with emotion for everyone involved. It is crucial to consult with a DCPP / DYFS attorney who understands the unique challenges facing children in out-of-home placement.
Whether you want sibling visits to be supervised, unsupervised, or feel it is time to renegotiate a visitation plan to better meet a child’s needs, legal representation is essential. Sometimes, it takes an attorney’s assistance to preserve those invaluable family bonds and ensure siblings stay connected.
New Jersey DCPP Lawyer with The Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker Handles Family Matters with Skill and Compassion
If you are dealing with a DCPP matter of any kind, it is important to understand your rights and responsibilities. Ted Baker, Cherry Hill DCPP lawyer and founder of our Law Offices of Theodore J. Baker, has more than 20 years of experience helping families across New Jersey achieve a fair and successful outcome. Call 856-210-9776 or complete the online form to schedule an appointment today. Located in Cherry Hill, we serve families across South Jersey.