Keeping the Ties that Bond Siblings
When child welfare staff in the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS), Children and Family Services Division, view a training video highlighting the lives of adults who were separated from their siblings as children through adoption, it's hard for the staff to hold back their tears.
Through emotionally charged interviews with youth and adults in Oklahoma who have been adopted, the video--The Sibling Connection: Keeping Brothers and Sisters Together Through Adoption, produced by OKDHS through a partnership with the University of Oklahoma--emphasizes the importance of sibling connections, and serves as a reminder for staff to think about keeping siblings together when seeking temporary or permanent placements for kids in care.
"Even though child welfare workers generally believe that placing siblings together is best practice, sibling placement issues are frequently put on a back burner due to the pressures and competing priorities workers face on a daily basis," says Roland St. John, Programs Field Representative for the Children and Families Services Division.
Over the last several years, OKDHS has revised its policies and training practices to make sibling placements a priority. Doing so results in a win-win situation for the children and the child welfare staff, St. John points out--maintaining a connection to siblings is one less loss children have to deal with, and placing siblings in the same home cuts down on the number of visits workers have to conduct.
In 1995, when OKDHS implemented its Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System--known as KIDS--which began tracking and generating automated reports on worker visits, the large number of siblings placed in separate homes became apparent.
"Having the visit information listed on paper showed that separation was not only hard on the children, it resulted in extra work for child welfare workers," St. John says. "Instead of scheduling one visit to see all the children on one case, workers had to schedule multiple visits. This involved coordinating with various foster parents, driving to separate placements, and documenting multiple visits in KIDS."
On any given day, about 12,000 children are within OKDHS custody. About 9,000 are part of sibling groups. In 2004, 48% of these children were placed in homes with their siblings. OKDHS is working to raise that number and is beginning to make headway. As of March 2007, 55% of siblings in care were placed together.
"Oklahoma is one of the states that has recognized the critical importance of the sibling relationship and sibling ties," says CWLA Director of Foster Care Millicent Williams. "During the often traumatic events children may experience upon placement in foster care, the sibling connection may be the only thing that can ease the transition for them."
In addition to showing the video, OKDHS has designated St. John to help minimize sibling separations by tracking sibling data within the system, identifying separated siblings, consulting with field staff about these separated siblings, and supporting efforts to reunify brothers and sisters.
OKDHS also established a resource recruitment committee that meets monthly to develop targeted recruitment marketing strategies, such as brochures, videos, and public service announcements for television and radio that support a variety of placements, including those for sibling groups.
In addition, recognizing that children placed with relatives increases the likelihood of siblings staying together, as well as helping maintain children's ties to their culture and kin, OKDHS implemented its Diligent Search program in 2005 in an effort to better locate relatives of children in custody. Workers are trained how to seek information from family and how to search for people using agency records and public information available on the Internet. The agency also has contracted with a search firm for help locating records on family members that may not be publicly available.
Along these same lines, the state's staff for both child welfare and child support have been working together to develop an interface that will allow the two divisions to share relevant information about common clients. Doing so can help identify absent parents when there is an open child support case for a child welfare client.
OKDHS plans to expand its sibling connections work by training more field staff on the Diligent Search program and increasing efforts to locate family members for children who have been in OKDHS custody for an extended amount of time. For copies of The Sibling Connection: Keeping Brothers and Sisters Together Through Adoption, while supplies last, contact St. John at 918/588-1738 or Roland.St.John@okdhs.org.
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