Program to strengthen sibling bonds for foster children

Some abused or neglected children suffer what Dave Bonebrake calls “threefold trauma.”

First comes abuse or neglect, sometimes at the hands of a parent or guardian. Second comes separation from home, as the child is placed in foster care for protection.

And third, in some cases, comes separation from brothers and sisters — the very people who can be critical to the child’s well-being during such a stressful time.

“What we’re going to try to do is eliminate one of the traumas,” said Bonebrake, program director for Court Appointed Special Advocates.

CASA’s trained volunteers are appointed by courts to represent the best interests of children.

The agency, working with the Washington County Department of Social Services, this month is launching Sibling Connections, a new initiative aimed at strengthening links among brothers and sisters who have been separated in the foster-care system.

Tasha Walls, a CASA social worker who directs Sibling Connections, said social-services workers try to keep brothers and sisters together. However, sometimes that’s not possible.

In some cases, for example, the sheer number of brothers and sisters makes it difficult to put all of them in the same foster home.

“It is asking a lot for a foster parent to take in four or five kids,” Walls said.

In other cases, it might make sense to place one child in a foster home, but leave another sibling — an infant, for instance — with the family.

At the same time, research has shown that maintaining sibling bonds can be critical for children as they move through foster care, are ideally reunited with their families and move into adulthood, Walls said.

That’s where Sibling Connections hopes to step in, working in cooperation with social services to provide more visits among those brothers and sisters.

The effort got under way thanks to a one-year, $24,114 grant from the Maryland Judiciary’s Administrative Office of the Courts’ foster-care court-improvement program, Walls said.

If the program is successful, CASA can reapply for further funding.

Walls said CASA’s current advocates and staff members are trained to work within Sibling Connections.

In addition, six staff members and two advocates are trained to administer what she called “visit coaching” when needed or requested. One of those six will always be one of two facilitators present at each visit.

The idea is for brothers and sisters to meet for games or meals, as well as conversations. As the program begins, the visits will be once every two weeks. Walls hopes to expand that to a weekly schedule.


‘A learning component’

Sibling Connections will take care of the details, from transporting children to and from visits, to setting up and supervising activities, to monitoring the visits and relationships.

Walls said handling logistics, such as transportation, is important so that more demands are not placed on stressed families and foster parents.

“You cannot put a little guy in a cab,” she said.

The meetings will take place at the Sunshine Center, Walls said.

That facility already hosts visits between parents and children. The setup will be ideal for Sibling Connections, and staff members are well-prepared, she said.

“Everyone kind of already knew everyone,” Walls said.

But the adults and children won’t be there just to chat. “There’s always going to be a learning component,” she said.

Those lessons — about sharing, helping with chores, taking turns, talking about daily activities, helping each other with daily challenges — might be the kinds of things other children learn in more traditional family settings.

Walls said if some Sibling Connections children struggle with some skills, such as learning how to share, for example, the coaches can step in to guide the visit.

Reuniting families remains the overall goal, Walls said.

So the long-range hope is that parents can be brought into the mix at some point, and both children and parents can take those lessons home, she said.

In some cases, parental rights are terminated, and children do not return to their biological parents.

In those cases, bonds strengthened through Siblings Connections will be particularly important as the children move into adulthood, Walls said.


Helping the children

In Maryland, regulations mandate that children in foster care have visits with their siblings at least once a month, said Becky Rice, child-welfare supervisor with the county social-services office.

“We are extremely excited here about the Sibling Connections program CASA is providing. … It’s going to take what we’re already doing and improve it,” Rice said.

Tiffany Lowe is the acting assistant director of the adult, child and family-services division at social services. Between 150 and 200 children are in foster care in the county at any given time, she said.

“It kind of ebbs and flows,” Rice said.

At this point, she does not know how many could be involved in Sibling Connections.

In his role as CASA program director, Bonebrake said Sibling Connections fits well with the organization’s other activities. It’s innovative and can be replicated by CASA programs in other communities, he said.

“We are all pretty excited. The board of directors has been very supportive. All the staff members are on board with this,” he said. “We think it’s going to help the children of Washington County.”

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