Splitting Up Siblings – Why?

This is a difficult topic to discuss, and arouses very strong emotions in people, but it has affected all of my children in a big way, especially Rhea. Therefore I want to address this issue in my post. To keep the post down to a couple of topics, I’m only going to focus on siblings who have lived together prior to going into care.

Firstly, I want to talk about the reasons a sibling group might be split up when they are adopted, because this is a question many people have, not only prospective adoptive and some adoptive parents, but many members of the public who have no experience with adoption as well.

Secondly, I want to talk about my children and what happened for them, and a bit about how this has worked out – although I am going to make another post about what happens after adoption with split up siblings, and this post is more about the lead up to adoption. And thirdly, I want to explain why I support splitting up siblings in certain circumstances – I know that expressing my opinion has shocked some people in years past, but I do know that sometimes splitting up siblings is the right course of action to take.

Why are siblings split up?

On hearing for the very first time that sometimes siblings are split up and sent to different families, many people (myself included) feel/felt quite shocked and upset. We all understand that it’s impossible to keep sibling groups of 10 together, but when it comes to groups of 2 or 3, people ask “But why? It isn’t their fault that they’re in care. Aren’t there any adopters who want sibling groups? And won’t splitting siblings up cause them serious emotional harm. I know how I would have felt if I had been taken into care and then taken away from my brothers/sisters, I would have been devastated”.

In the 18 years I’ve been involved with the adoption community (nearly 17 of which I’ve been an adoptive parent), here are the main reason I’ve seen siblings split up:

  1. The group is a large group, and there are no homes that possibly take that many children. This is something I’ve seen quite a few times. Dysfunctional families are more likely to have a lot of children than other families – and indeed, the large number of children can make it much harder to cope at home and more likely that social services will be involved. It’s not unusual at all to see groups of 5-10+ siblings all in care (although where there are 10+ normally they don’t all come into care at once, the older ones get taken away and then the birth parents have more children who are also removed). Groups of 4/5 are usually split up, groups of 6+ pretty much always will be. To start with, they will normally be split into groups of 2’s or 3’s, along age lines. 
  2. Some siblings are too old to be adopted. The cut off age for adoption depends on the local authority, but as an adoptive mother of older children, I am all too aware that faced with a group of 2 siblings aged 11 and 2, commonly they will be split up because the chances of an 11 year old being adopted (no matter what their needs are) are extremely slim whereas the 2 year old has a good chance as long as they don’t have many additional needs/sensitive background issues. I can count on two hands the number of adoptive families I know of who have adopted kids aged 10-12+ in 18 years. Yes, there will be more out there somewhere, but it’s a fact that most aadoptive families are looking for children aged under 5 or 6 at most. Once a child reaches 6/7 the social workers and the courts will start discounting adoption as an option, and that frequently affects sibling groups
  3. Some sibling have unhealthy relationships or huge needs. And this is the one I want to focus on. This is the reason why sibling groups of 2 or 3 may be split up, and this is the reason which many don’t consider when they wonder why the system is so cruel to split up groups of 2/3.

Why do siblings in care quite often (I do mean ‘often’) have very unhealthy relationships? It goes back to trauma. When a child is born into and raised in a choatic and neglectful/abusive household, and when a child is neglected/abused in the first weeks/months/years of life, that childs brain often fails to develop normally. A HUGE amount of brain development occurs in the first 3 years of life, and of those 3 years the 1st year is critical. The human brain cannot develop without input – it is ‘activity-dependent. If the input the brain gets shows that the world and the humans in it are scary, unsafe, violent, unpredictable…if the brain never experiences hugs and cuddles etc…then the brain will not develop as it should. It does not matter whether the child can remember it or not, not a bit. The child can be removed from a profoundly neglectful home aged 6 months and the damage can be done – for life. The brain has some plasticity, but to what extent is not really known, and I have seen first hand that early brain ‘damage’ (not sure what to call it, the brain components are not damaged but they wire up ‘wrong’ if that makes sense) can sometimes be profound and impossible to ‘heal’.

So how does this affect siblings? Well, a brain that is mis-wired is frequently not programmed to do functional relationships. If we are taught that humans are terrifying and horrid people that can’t meet your needs…if you are never shown love….then you may well not develop the ability to form relationships properly. You may not feel love as other people feel it, you may not develop empathy, you may learn a really unhealthy way of relating to people. And this applies to siblings. Siblings who are taken into care may not relate to each other or love each other the way siblings usually do. They may have extremely unhealthy behaviour patterns.

This is commonly known as a ‘trauma bond’ ie. their relationship and ‘love’ is not the normal sibling bond, but an unhealthy relationship formed from trauma.

So…the follow up question to this is usually – can’t this be fixed though? If such a sibling group went to live with good and loving parents, couldn’t they be taught to relate heathily to each other?

Well, this depends on the individual sibling group. For some sibling groups, yes, they can learn to relate better..or indeed, some sibling groups may have a proper sibling bonds, not trauma bonds. But for some groups…no, their unhealthy way of relating to each other is fixed and can’t be fundamentally changed. And when this is the the case, splitting the siblings up is a course of action that can be taken.

To give an example of trauma based relationships between siblings – in my time supporting adoptive parents, and using message boards or real life support groups, I need more than two hands and feet to count the number of times adoptive parents have said ‘please help, one of my children is sexually abusing the other – what should I do?’ (this is not common by any means but I can’t call it extremely rare either sadly since I am no longer shocked or even surprised when I hear these stories).

That’s a very sad example which might shock many people reading this. But I’m not shying away from mentionning it, because it’s a real issue which affects a thankfully small number of families.

Other examples are  -groups where one sibling controls the others completely, siblings where one is very parentified, groups where they just don’t love each other – they don’t know how.

The other major problem following trauma, is not that the siblings don’t love each other or abuse each other, but that one of (or all of) the siblings is/are very high needs, maybe having several problems such as ADHD, autism, attachment disorder, PTSD etc…and this/these siblings needs so much time and attention that it would be very unfair to place them in a group because they just wouldn’t get what they need. Also, the adoptive parent would be totally overwhelmed trying to meet every childs needs, although they could parent just one of the group.

I will now use my daughter Rhea’s story (with her express permission) – this is why my family is affected by split-up-siblings (and by trauma bonds as well).

My daughter Rhea was taken into care over 20 years ago. She is the eldest of 6 siblings, although at the time she was taken into care (aged 6) not all these siblings had been concieved. In 1992 she and her 2 younger siblings were taken away together.

Since the birth of Rhea’s first sibling, Rhea was part parent. By the age of 6, she was the person who did nearly all nappy changes in the house. She vividly recalls being a bit younger when her first sibling was a baby (I guess Rhea must have been about 3) and her sibling was very hungry because she hadn’t been fed, there was no soft or baby food and baby couldn’t feed herself because she couldn’t chew the adult food properly. Rhea got her some crisps and coke, found out she couldn’t chew, only swallow, so then she chewed the crisps herself to make them soft then spat them back into baby’s mouth so baby could eat. I cried when Rhea recounted this to me aged about 14. That’s just one example. 6 year old Rhea loved her siblings deeply – but her seemingly deep attachment to them was actually partly fear. She clung to her siblings because she didn’t trust any adult to look after them.

Foster family one took in 3. And foster mum found that all 3 had serious needs. All 3 needed huge amounts of 1:1 time. Rhea was withdrawn and needed to be in control. She was also the self appointed mum of the other two. If foster mum tried to feed or put the bed the other two, Rhea made sure she was supervising closely. Rhea decided that she must be the one to bathe the others. Rhea monitered the other two and decided if they needed feeding or nappy changing and tried to do it herself. Also, in her capacity as self-appointed mother, she put herself in charge of all dicsipline. That meant that when one of her siblings became agressive and threw things/hit/tantrumed, Rhea intervened, shouting and threatening no pudding, and yelling at her next-in-age silbing to ‘go to your room and stay there till I say come out’. If the foster mum tried to get Rhea to stop, or tried to do something Rhea did not approve of, Rhea kicked and slapped her and yelled at her.

That;s not including the major problems all three had with aggression, sleeping issues, food issues (hoarding it, eating themselves sick, stealing it etc), poor boundaries, no concentration span etc etc.

The placement was untenable. The foster parents disrupted and the 3 were removed. The younger two were sent to one foster home, and Rhea to another. According to Rhea’s file, the final straw was Rhea’s violence. Rhea also remembers her foster mum losing her rag when Rhea put her 2 year old sibling ‘over-her-knee’ for some infraction of Rhea’s rules.

Parentification is another quite common issue with siblings.

Rhea was devastated beyond belief to lose her siblings. She raged and cried and ran away to try and get back to them. She loved them. It was not a happy split (although I was told by one of the siblings adoptive parents that said sibling did not really care about being seperated from Rhea and never talked about her and showed no attachment to her).

But as an adult, Rhea herself thinks that the split was for the best. And I agree with her. She did not have a healthy relationship with her siblings, it was a trauma bond. As a single child, she has been able to have all my attention focussed on her, she has not been exposed to her siblings many serious issues, and as such she has been able to heal from her past experiences.

So it’s time for all social services departments to stop placing all siblings together just because they are siblings. We need to all accept that sometimes it’s not a good idea to place siblings together. And time to actually spend the money assessing and giving therapy to siblings, and working out which ones would benefit from being split. Too many times you see adoptive parents of siblings saying ‘my two/three should not have been placed together’. It’s very sad, but it’s true.

Many adopters of siblings say it’s been fantastic, and theirs definitely need to stay together. That’s good – that’s what should be happening all the time. But it’s not. Sometimes, as happened for Rhea, the splitting up decision has to made.



12 thoughts on “Splitting Up Siblings – Why?

  1. What a fantastic post. So well written and argued. It can be such a non-obvious concelt for those who have had no exposure to the world of adoption and the baggage that so many hcildren will carry with them into foster placements and ultiimately forever families.The explamation of early trauma’s effects on brain development are so clear.

    And a huge “Thank You” to Rhea for allowing her story to be told to help others.

  2. this is a fabulous post – thank you – and how amazing is Rhea to be able to recall and reflect so well on all that has happened – I can realate to this post too – and will write about it at some post – and would like to link my post to yours when I do write!

  3. Pingback: Splitting Up Siblings – Emotions and Explanations | Last Mother

  4. Great post, I have siblings but they were in FC with an older sibling who they have been separated from because he was older and it was thought he wouldn’t attach well to a new family. My two boys have been good for each other and I’m pleased they stayed together, it was the right decision, however I can see how this might not be right for all. I think that SS need to be able to evaluate each case individually and hopefully make the correct decisions based on assessment. I think it’s great that you’ve written about this subject and shared it on The Weekly Adoption Shout Out.

  5. What balanced piece of writing. It is a difficult topic but I can relate to this very much. Beeswax believed for a very long time that the only reason he managed to get an adoptive family is because he had a brother who was 5 years younger than him and he has always resented Buzzbee for this. He once told me that if we hadn’t taken him he would have been on the SS scrapheap forever. My boys have an unhealthy relationship (trauma bond) and there was a point after they were placed that we thought we may have to split the boys up and disrupt the placement with Beeswax as it wasn’t fair on either of them. Thankfully we have found a wonderful EBD school that Beeswax now boards at during the week and this has taken the stress off them and it is more manageable for all (of course there are still issues).
    Although in an ideal world I would love to think of siblings being kept together, seeing how my boys have struggled over the years has brought me to firmly believe that SS has to consider each case carefully and hope that the correct decision can be made for each separate situation.

    Thank for sharing

  6. I agree with this. I have cared for two siblings living near to each other but in separate houses, having adopted one and taken part in the shared therapeutic fostering of the other. I’m grateful for the advice given by a wise psychologist to not adopt both of them. With hindsight I know I would have found it impossible and they would have traumatised each other. Sad though.

  7. Pingback: Splitting up Siblings – Contact | Last Mother

  8. Pingback: Camp for Siblings Split Up in Foster Care – Don't We Look Alike?

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