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The Psychological Consequences of Separating Siblings in Foster Care

Updated: Dec 5, 2023


The psychological stigma associated with being labeled an “orphan,” “foster child,” “ward of the court” or “at-risk youth” can wreak havoc with one’s self-esteem. The terms used to describe our lowly social status say that we are less than other kids: less fortunate, less worthy, less good, less capable, less important, less lovable – less almost everything.

Many of us are so distressed by what happened at home or in the system that we develop

behavioral disorders, emotional problems or other mental health issues that compromise our

ability to overcome the past and adjust to the future. Still others of us feel ashamed of our youth and spend a lifetime hiding from the past – or struggling to forget it.

At best, the experience of being separated from family and placed in the care of strangers leaves a bloody scab on the psyche that may never quite heal.

Take, for example, the psychological consequences associated with placing siblings in separate settings. On page 95 of Growing Up in the Care of Strangers: The Experiences, Insights and Recommendations of Eleven Former Foster Kids, alumna Dr. Debraha Watson writes:

“Keeping siblings together must be a priority. It is paramount that foster children retain some sense of familial identity. It is difficult enough for us to deal with removal from our parents or other adult family members, but by also separating us from our brothers and sisters, we now are stripped of all sense of family – cut adrift, alone and unconnected to anything or anyone.”

Indeed, those alumni who lost touch with brothers and sisters in foster care know this fact

intuitively. Being left all alone, bereft of parents – and now siblings – is often too much

emotional pain to bear. That is why foster kids deprived of sibling connections are prone to spurn relationships, act out and endure mental health issues in the care of strangers. Furthermore, their relationships with siblings will likely suffer long after leaving the foster care system.

On page 115 of her revealing memoir, If Not for Dreams: Memoir of a Foster Child, Dr. Debraha Watson describes her lost connection with her younger sister and brother:

“For the first time in our lives Lois, Sandy and I were together. It was both a happy and uncomfortable time. Sandy had never met Lois, and I had not seen Sandy in years. At fourteen, he stood on the edge of manhood. I remembered him as a whiny little boy that I always had to take care of. Our conversation was awkward. It was as if we were all strangers who sensed a connection and were trying to reach out to each other. Unfortunately, time and separation were the barriers. We were no longer what we remembered of each other.”

We certainly realize factors such as the number of siblings, their ages and special needs

complicate, and sometimes preclude, placing brothers and sisters under the same roof.


However, we also realize siblings that do not live in the same home should be encouraged to

maintain their relationship through phone calls, texts, e-mails, cards, letters and especially

regular visits.

In a personal communication, Dr. Watson encapsulated the essence of why every effort should

be made to preserve sibling relationships this way:

“Sustained contact between siblings helps foster kids to maintain the emotional stability and family ties that will benefit them during placement and long after they exit the child welfare system. Often, we older siblings experience feelings of guilt and loss. I still deal with survivors’ guilt as I have lived beyond my brother. I survive believing that one day we will see each other again and claim our lives anew.”

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Great post and realistic feelings from the author explaining what damage the separation did. I was the youngest of 6 siblings, the 2 oldest sisters were like my mother. Then you wake up one day and 'one by one' they start to dissappear and no one is explaining anything. You don't know where they are, where you are going and life goes on. Maybe the damage is not immediate, maybe it hits when you are a teen, or when you try and have relationships with others! It definately needs to be addressed. I am so thankful I had siblings, who as adults we connected. I think of those who are the only child and don't have that opportunity.

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