Op-Ed from the office of Senator Carlos Uresti

September 11, 2008
CONTACT: Vanessa Macias Ballou, (512) 463-0119

Strength in Siblings
by Senator Carlos I. Uresti

An article I recently read criticized the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) for separating siblings in child abuse cases and painted the picture that DFPS was trying to keep siblings a part. During my eleven years in the Texas Legislature, sibling separation has always been an emotional issue and it is an issue that we have learned a great deal about. Fortunately, what our hearts know about the importance of siblings has been carefully documented by research. Perhaps the Child Welfare Information Gateway (www.childwelfare.gov) best summarizes the point:

Sibling relationships are emotionally powerful and critically important not only in childhood but over the course of a lifetime. Sibling relationships can provide a significant source of continuity throughout a child's lifetime and are likely to be the longest relationships that most people experience. Research has demonstrated that warmth in sibling relationships is associated with less loneliness, fewer behavior problems, and higher self-worth (Stocker, 1994).

It follows that children in foster care need their siblings even more than most children. Siblings serve as a buffer against harsh circumstances and create a sense of safety and well-being. Research shows, that for many children, sibling relationships promote resilience (Werner, 1990; Sanders, 2004). Additionally, sibling placement can improve permanency outcomes for foster children. A recent study found that placing siblings in the same foster home was associated with a significantly higher rate of family reunification (Webster, Shlonsky, Shaw, & Brookhart, 2005).

Child Protective Services' policy is, whenever possible, to place all the children removed from a particular home with the same caregiver ó unless it is in the best interest of one or more of the children to be placed separately. When siblings cannot be placed together, the case worker must ensure that they are placed with caregivers who are committed to helping them stay in regular contact (visits, phone calls, correspondence), unless it is clearly not in the best interest of one or more of the children to stay in touch (CPS Handbook Section 6314.1).

So, we know what the policy is, but what is the reality? In 2007, Bexar County's monthly average of siblings in substitute care was 2,730 children in 906 sibling groups. The department was able to place at least two siblings together 75% of the time and all siblings together at least 44.6% of the time. The lower percentage obviously reflects the increased challenges of placing more children together in one foster home.

The numbers demonstrate that an effort is being made to keep siblings together and steps are taken every session to ensure that further improvement is made in this area. One such step was Senate Bill 804, which allows a family who has adopted a child standing to adopt that child's sibling. I passed this legislation during the 80th Legislative Session and it went into effect on September 1, 2007. Another such step was House Bill 1481 by Representative Castro, which I sponsored in the Senate. This measure allows an adult sibling to file suit requesting managing conservatorship of their sibling when the parent-child relationship between the child and every living parent of the child is terminated in a suit filed by DFPS.

Another area I felt needed improvement was letting children know they have rights with regards to their siblings. Thatís why I authored the Foster Children's Bill of Rights, a bill that specifically addresses sibling contact and placement issues. The Foster Childrenís Bill of Rights has been implemented by DFPS, and provides that children in care have the right to visit and have regular contact with their family, including their brothers and sisters, unless prohibited by court order or case plan. If contact is restricted, the children are entitled to an explanation that is documented in their record.

Positive sibling contact policies must be at the heart of CPS reform efforts, both for children in care and children who are adopted. Sibling contact is not a sentimental option; rather it is a necessity for the healthy development of most children who enter state care.

Carlos I. Uresti is the Senator for State Senate District 19, a 23 county area stretching along the U.S.-Mexico border, from San Antonio to El Paso County.