Placing siblings in foster care

When placing a child or young person in long-term or temporary foster care, practitioners must consider a host of factors that can affect the likelihood of positive outcomes for the young person. One of these is whether it is always better to place siblings together.

Most social workers try to do this as it seems to underpin good practice, but it is not always possible because of varying factors, including location, individual circumstances and the availability of suitable foster carers.

Evidence about outcomes

Research into the views of children and young people with experience of care has found that relationships with brothers and sisters are often what they value most in family life, sometimes more than any other family relationship.

One 15-year-old, quoted in Scie Knowledge Review 05, said: “I’ve got two [siblings] that are adopted, and the only time that I get with them is right between Christmas and New YearIt just pisses me off, because I helped my mum to bring my little sister up, and my brothersI had that bond, right? And now I get to see them for two hours a year. I don’t know what’s harder. I mean, having somebody there and never seeing them for years, or somebody being deadDo you know what I mean? Because it’s like the most frustrating thing ever, because at least when they’re dead – no disrespect to anybody – but when they’re dead you know that they’re gone, and that they can’t come back and that they can’t find youBut it’s like, when you know that they’re still out there and everything, it pisses you off so much.”

However, placing siblings together in the same foster family can have complications. One is the varying relationships between brothers and sisters. Some get on well and want to be together, others do not and may be jealous of each other. Brothers and sisters can present a range of needs, which some foster families find difficult to meet. Further, there is generally an acute shortage of foster carers able to take sibling groups, especially larger groups.

Scie’s review of research for its guidance on fostering did not find conclusive evidence that placing siblings together improves their outcomes during or after placement.

One study, which did find that children placed alone had poorer outcomes than those placed with their siblings, could be explained by the fact that the lone children had more needs than the siblings who remained at home.

Another study found successful outcomes for children who had close emotional relationships with their siblings and were placed together, though a further study argued against placing children from sexually abusive families together.

It is clear that social work practitioners need to take much into consideration and make individual decisions about whether it’s best to place siblings together. However, research on the area has provided some clear-cut results that suggest that:

Children placed away from their siblings are more likely to have experienced rejection at home (for example, neglect and abuse).
Children who have siblings remaining at home are more likely to have a disrupted placement than those who do not.
Children who have been rejected and placed apart from their siblings are less likely to have stable placements than if they had been placed with them.
Relationships between siblings can have both a positive and negative effect on their placements.

Practitioners’ messages

Remember that, if possible, siblings should be placed together, especially if this is what they want, but also ask yourself whether you have balanced this with using your professional judgement and fine-tuning for individual children’s needs.
If you cannot place siblings together ask each of them what their relationships with their brother and sisters mean for them and do all that you can to facilitate the contact they want.
Remember there are complex decisions to be made about placing children apart from their siblings when they have been singled out for rejection, neglect or abuse at home. Placing them apart from their siblings may perpetuate their feelings of isolation and rejection.

Further information

Knowledge Review 04: Innovative, Tried and Tested: A Review of Good Practice in Fostering 
Knowledge Review 05: Fostering Success: An Exploration of the Research Literature in Foster Care 
Practice Guide 3: Fostering 
A National Voice 
British Association for Adoption & Fostering 


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