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Foster Siblings Connections: The Sibling Bill of Rights and Grassroots Advocacy

By Nicole Thieman

Lynn Price knows firsthand the importance of maintaining sibling relationships for children in foster care. Price was separated from her sister until the age of eight. A policy had yet to exist that permitted them to get to know one another like siblings who grow up in a "traditional" environment. Experiences like Price's have led the Child Welfare League of America and other children's advocates to push for legislation and programs for the rights of siblings to connect with one another while in foster care.

"When you're young, you don't understand the effect that the sibling relationship will have later in life," says Price, who has been active with CWLA in promoting siblings' rights by giving keynote speeches and helping with workshops.

Price was involved with the passage of a resolution co-sponsored by senators that marked March 1, 2006, as "Sibling Connection Day." The resolution raised awareness and support for actions that promote the importance of sibling connections for kids in care.

One of the most significant updates in siblings' rights legislation was the 2012 passage of the Sibling Bill of Rights, ten guidelines for fostering sibling relationships while siblings are in care or post-adoption. This initiative was brought about by the New England Youth Coalition (NEYC), an advocacy organization that works to improve the system for youth in care. The NEYC is comprised of adults who work in the foster care system and children aged 16 years and older who have had experience in foster care. It is sponsored by The Association, the foster care commissioners and directors in the six New England states that make up the NEYC.

"Legislators are open to making this an important issue. They are sensitive to it," says YaMinco Varner, policy associate at CWLA, who has covered sibling legislation for the Government Affairs Office. Varner notes that for many years, there was nothing on the books regarding siblings' rights. The NEYC, in this sense, has played an important role in giving kids in care a voice, raising awareness for their need for permanency while in care.

"The NEYC was created to bring change to child welfare agencies in an effort to try and create permanent connections in the area of care. Young people in care in several different New England states came to form the group. They work on four different policy areas, and sibling policy came out of the permanency initiative," says Julie Springwater, who has worked in the child welfare field for 40 years and now serves as the executive director of the New England Association of Child Welfare Commissioners and Directors and as vice chair of CWLA.

Establishing permanency for kids in care seems to be the driving force behind the siblings' rights initiative because a sibling can offer a child in care a connection to their past, family, and stability for the future. Springwater says that the New England commissioners and directors have all signed permanency documents, noting that they are committed to try to keep siblings together while in care. They have even heard stories of young people going to live with older siblings and much has been done to aid these connections. Massachusetts is currently creating an alumni network for siblings and organizations like Foster Care Alumni of America and California Youth Connection, making it easier for young people to establish those contacts.

There have also been dynamic programs to help bring siblings together, despite factors like distance that may make it hard to connect. For example, Price founded Camp To Belong, a nonprofit organization that established ten summer camps to bring brothers and sisters separated by foster care, adoptive, or kinship homes together for six days to help them maintain and establish a sibling relationship.

Education and training seems to play a vital part in the continuation of the siblings' rights platform. Clay Finck is the Director of the National Resource Center for Youth Services (NRCYS), which provides training and technical assistance nationally to child welfare agencies or companies that contract through them for programs that better the lives of youth and their families.

One of NRCYS's focuses is helping young people in care identify who their connections are in a program called "Life Long Connections." Children in care are encouraged to find a "life-long, kin-like connection between a youth and a supportive adult" that will provide them with a long-term relationship and much-needed permanency, proven to help them succeed long-term--something that speaks directly to sibling relationships.

"It is about trying to get young people to identify who their connections are. We are very well aware that siblings are the longest relation you will have in life," says Finck, who believes that siblings can play a large part in providing permanency for kids in foster care. "We have seen some young people reconnect with siblings and become support systems where no one else has been."

The National Resource Center for Youth Development (NRCYD) provides a siblings tool kit--one tailored to children in care and another for adults. Both include information on the history of sibling rights and best practices, and give resources to teach children and caregivers how to cautiously reach out and connect with a sibling.

Some efforts in the field are simply about more awareness. For example, April Curtis has been active in the child welfare field for some time, running sibling training programs nationally to share her story about being in care in an effort to raise awareness for sibling rights legislation. She is a testament to the importance of education and awareness, traveling to different states and presenting ways that organizations can promote sibling relationships within their own state's foster care system. Curtis claims that the national conversation is changing when it comes to sibling legislation.

"It used to be that if the system provided a roof over your head, the job was done, but it's about going beyond that now. Sibling relationships are at the forefront with a focus on keeping siblings united instead of finding them after care," says Curtis. "More and more, states are talking and being vocal about it, and legislators are starting to think outside the box. It is about bringing more education to the forefront about the impact siblings can have."

Grace Hilliard-Koshinsky, a member of The Association, says that much has been done, including the Sibling Bill of Rights, to raise public consciousness and place siblings together more frequently, but recognizes that the job is not finished yet. She maintains that issues need to be addressed, like the true definition of a sibling, the barriers to why sibling visits are not occurring, and so on.

"While a lot is being done to make sure folks have permanent families, more needs to be done and siblings need to be focused on separately," says Hilliard-Koshinsky, who cannot overemphasize the importance of this unique relationship. "The [sibling] relationship provides economic and psychological benefits to children and they are able to function at a higher level if that connection is maintained."

It seems that the way in which siblings' rights and foster care has been thought of and approached in the past is changing. According to Springwater, there are huge shifts in the knowledge base about what works, and more emphasis is being placed on evidence-based processes. It is the hope that through continued education, awareness, evidence-based practices, and effective legislation, the advances being made in siblings' rights for children in care will continue.

Nicole Thieman is a former editorial intern at CWLA.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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