by Becky Malecki
Originally published in Fostering Families Today. Used with the permission of the author, Becky Malecki.
While keeping siblings together is important, at times that togetherness can hinder their growth as individuals
I used to be righteous, exclaiming the need to keep displaced siblings together. As a child protection caseworker in the 1980’s finding foster homes that would take sibling groups was one of my greatest challenges. When I had to separate children from their birth parents I knew it had to be done; there was seldom any real choice in the matter. But, I reasoned, separating innocent children from their siblings was an entirely different story. Why pile loss upon loss if it’s not absolutely necessary? I believed in a just world, a better world, and I believed there would be more justice if we would work to keep siblings together as a general rule, a policy even, if at all possible.
More than 10 years have passed since I have worked for Social Services – five of those years spend as a foster parent to siblings groups. In 1997 I changed my career (becoming an elementary school teacher) so I could fulfill one of my life goals of becoming a foster parent. In November of that year, my husband (a clinical psychologist) and I accepted three siblings, ages 3, 7, and 8, into or home. For the next four years we worked harder at making it work than we’ve ever worked at anything in our lives. During the process we have read everything we could find, talked with countless foster parents, and tried several types of interventions with attachment specialists.
I now think differently about keeping siblings together, no matter what. Sometimes I think we should go to great lengths – whatever is necessary – to not break siblings apart. In the case of a relatively normal, well-functioning sibling group, they should be kept together – e.g., when a parent has died from AIDS or some other illness, and the children do trust adults, then I would fully support it.
However, in scenarios involving abuse and neglect, with resulting Attachment Disorder, I think keeping siblings together is often counterproductive to helping the children to heal. First work on their healing. Keep them in contact with one another. When they are healed, then is the time to establish meaningful relationships. In other words, contrary to my initial beliefs, I now know that it’s often absolutely necessary to separate young siblings!
Children who have not bonded to any loving adult are often unattached and harbor serious emotional, behavioral and psychological problems that only worsen as the child grows older. But, you may say, then why break up the only attachments they do have – the attachments to their siblings? The answer is that their lives may very well depend on it.
Children need to bond to a loving adult in order to ever be able to deal with issues of trust, authority or real intimacy. A bond with an unhealthy sibling often stands in the way of the parent-child bond. It can be used as a crutch – I don’t need you, I’ve got my brother in much the same way gang members rely on each other for a sense of belonging and security. It’s effective for the youth, but isn’t healthy or good for society.
When my husband and I started fostering, we knew a great deal about Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), but we had never lived with it on a day-to-day basis. We were in awe of the complexities we had to deal with. Instead of three separate children, we had a enmeshed group that was deeply intertwined in their pathology. We sought help. Attachment therapists were encouraging, but not optimistic (one of them told us she had seen no one – in her 30 years in the field – who had successfully healed three RAD siblings). We were humbled. We learned a lot. We’re still learning every day.
Our Most Important Lessons:
1. Rivalry between RAD children is not like normal sibling rivalry. It can take a dimension of intensity that mirrors their past abuse and involves a fierce degree of competitiveness that shadows all else. These are children who cannot be left alone while you’re in the bathroom for they might harm each other, injure a pet or destroy something of value.
For years, if I had my three sibs together I would take a shower by taking my daughter into the bathroom with me where she would play with toys and be engaged in a continuous dialogue with me. My middle child would be allowed to play on the piano, so I could monitor the sound, while my oldest son had strict instructions to play in his room. Imagine an 8-year-old sexually molesting a younger sibling while they’re riding bikes in a cul-de-sac – a game that took only second – but which they replayed over and over – sound unbelievable? These are RAD kids with an agenda to not get better!
2. Sibling groups carry a collective memory of their past trauma. Through their ongoing interactions with each other they help to keep the ugly past alive. They trigger memories for each other. Remember that time Mom went into the bar and we had to stay in the car, then it got dark and… Yes, such memories are potentially a window into therapeutic healing, but how often are you there to help them process every such interaction?
Several times a day our 7-year-old would love to remind his 4-year-old sibling of all the Rated R horror movies she had seen when they lived with various caretakers. She would have ongoing– nightly–nightmares. This was so rewarding and fun for the 7-year-old we simply had to cease all communication between the two for more than six months until we could establish the habit of healthy communication.
3. Unconsciously, their emotional issues, their mannerisms, even their very physical looks can be triggers of negative feelings of rejection.
One of our children was emotionally abused in a unique way: when this child’s birthday came around, the birth mother would shower gifts upon only her most favored child, intentionally ignoring the birthday child. As one might imagine, birthdays in our home have been huge, emotionally charged events that we have had to deal with for weeks preceding the birthdays.
4. These children love to sabotage each other and the parents, as they believe there is never enough love.
They may never believe it Our children have sabotaged special events for each other and for us parents when they’ve been worried about not getting enough attention, material items, or time. After not having anywhere near enough of anything good in the first few years of life, it is questionable whether children ever can recover completely from such heartfelt pain. One summer I traveled east to attend a 25-year reunion. I took my youngest child with me because I did not believe it would be good to be separated from me for even a weekend. I arrived two days early so we would have time to adjust. I was leaving her with my father, brother and his family for the evening (relatives she knew well), when, five minutes before I was to leave, she went into the backyard and got bitten by a dog – 16 stitches to her face. Later in therapy she admitted she had tried to make the dog bit her on purpose to keep me from going. It worked. I spent the evening with her in an ER instead of going out. We have become accustomed to the children’s ever-present anxiety about whose piece of dessert will be the biggest, who will get to go first when we play a game, who will have more (or better) presents at Christmas, who will get new socks at the store, etc. Even though we are incredibly proactive and consistent about how to handle these things, everything is a point on intense comparison, an issue of self-worth. In the adoption (or fostering) of sibling groups, I wish we had considered the following questions:
1. How many children are you considering, and how many adults are there for the intense mom or dad roles?
If there are only two adults and there are more than two siblings, how are you going to meet their real need for physical affection, attention and one-on-one time? Two adults have only two laps. The need for one-on-one time for bonding is absolutely critical, especially in the first year or two. More than two children can simply become overwhelming in terms of the reality of their needs and a 24-hour day. Most parents can’t find enough time to read to their children before bedtime. Adopted children need cuddling time every day. Outside of school, they need Mom’s or Dad’s almost constant presence (I say almost because I do believe twice a month therapeutic respite is critical to parent preservation). Day care is counter-productive to bonding, too.
2. How much past trauma have the siblings experienced?
The more trauma from abuse or neglect, the heavier the issues each child will have to deal with. Individual therapy, medical evaluations, tutoring and enrichment activities are time consuming. Then, of course, the group has a collective history they may – consciously or unconsciously – try to keep alive. The goal is to help them–in a secure home with a minimum of unhealthy contact, parents whom they can attach to, therapy, possibly medication, and other enrichment activities –to heal from the past. The presence of siblings is often counterproductive to this goal, adding a constant unhealthy interaction, and interference with parent attachment.
3. What’s your support system like?
A family with two adults and two children has six different relationship dyads. Adding just one more child results in 10 different relationships. We could have used the help of close, extended family members, but they lived thousands of miles away. Grandparents, aunts and uncles – while supportive – were at least a thousand miles away. We had friends willing to help, but both our family and friends don’t really understand that treating RAD kids just like normal kids is not always a good idea – the level of supervision required for a sibling group is huge, as it needs to be constant and vigilant. Regular baby-sitters are out of the question and finding skilled, mature and willing help for a sibling group of emotionally disturbed children is no easy task. After three years we finally bought videotapes to train a respite provider (available from Nancy Thomas, professional foster parent and parent trainer) and were successful in finding someone. It costs us $10 an hour so it’s not cheap, but we do now have this option.
We still don’t know if we’ll be successful with one, two or all three kids. Today our definition of success is very different than it once was. Success is if we can raise them to be relatively happy, productive members of society, to stay out of jail, to not become addicted to drugs or alcohol and to not repeat cycles of abuse in their relationships. Our middle child has left the home and is currently living in a group home. After trying everything we knew, including an attachment intensive in Evergreen, CO, and 10 days living with parent specialist Nancy Thomas, he became too violent to safely remain in the home. This doesn’t mean we’ve given up on him, just as it doesn’t mean that we still don’t have hope for sibling groups in other homes. It does mean we’re much wiser about the reality of sibling groups with RAD, and of our limitations. Today I’m righteous in the other direction: we should not encourage the adoption of sibling groups with a history of extreme neglect or abuse, as they are usually the prime candidates for Reactive Attachment Disorder. Healing is easier–or simply more likely–one child at a time.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Becky Malecki is a foster/adoptive parent in Fort Collins, CO. Currently an elementary school teacher, she is a past child protection caseworker with a master’s degree in human development and family studies from Colorado State University. A native of Chicago, and the daughter of two parents adopted as older children, she is a big advocate of adoption when the prospective parents are informed, educated and supported by a team of professionals.