The following is some background to my theory of change by belief as discussed in the previous blog post, Making Change Happen; a ‘prequel’ if you will. An illustration will probably best describe it so I’ll start there and follow-up with the ‘sequel’ to my landing on this topic. And while I’m at it, I’ll give some suggestions for accomplishing this all important ‘change by belief’.
In the example used previously, sibling connections, I recall three incidents that played a significant role in changing my belief about siblings being together. It’s not that I did not think it was important before these circumstances, but this pushed me from thinking that it was important to believing it was critical.
One incident happened when I was transporting a 9-year-old boy back to a foster home after a visit with his 12-year-old sister. The case goal was to find an adoptive home for these two siblings, and 3 others. However, the plan was to have these two in separate homes and a third home would be identified for the youngest three. The 12-year-old had major mental health issues and had in fact tried to commit suicide several times. The 9-year-old was doing fairly well on his own with no major problems. On the drive home after a visit, he asked me why we were not planning to find an adoptive home that would take all the siblings. I tried to explain so that he could understand about the challenge for parents taking in 5 children at once. And I also talked with him about his sister, Ellen’s, emotional problems. He listened intently and when I was done explaining about the extra attention Ellen needed, he said to me, “but I can take care of Ellen; I need to take care of my sister”. It really made me stop and think that maybe I was the one missing the point. Maybe what they needed was to be together.
The second incident happened later and supported my thinking about the importance of siblings being together. This happened in the middle of the night, after a police officer called to request a foster care placement for 4 children ages 1+ to 5 years. I arrived at the family apartment to see the 4 children lined up by the sofa, each with a neat stack of belongings laid out. The 5-year-old explained that she had gathered together necessary items for the ‘little ones’ — each could take two outfits, pajamas, one toy, one blanket, and their toothbrushes. (Can you say”parentified”…??) On the drive to the shelter and for the next few hours she asked me several times if they could stay together and gave me a litany of reasons that they should be placed together. Her main arguments were that the ‘little ones will be scared’ if they did not stay together and that they needed to be together. Throughout this time, I was thinking, how am I going to find a home that can take four ‘little ones’?
I prefer not to say how this story ended…I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to select an ending that you can accept.
[As an aside, this also was when I decided to pursue licensure as a foster parent myself. These kids needed to stay together and after all, I was living in a house with two empty bedrooms. If I had a foster home license, I could have provided a home for children in similar circumstances. Maybe potential foster parents ought to accompany social workers on such calls....might be an effective recruiting tool!]
The third incident gave me a different but equally important perspective; an after-the-fact glimpse into a mother’s motivation and experience. This occurred in the course of an evaluation of a state child welfare system. I was interviewing parties to a foster care case to determine if the state had provided adequate care to ensure positive outcomes. I spoke with a young mother, just 25 years old, with 6 children. Three of the children were her husband’s by a previous relationship. She clearly had enthusiastically taken on the role of mother to these children, the oldest just 12 years younger than she. The children had all been in foster care for just over a year and now were back in her care. We talked at length about the fact that they had been in shelter care nearly two months and then were placed in a home together that was a six-hour drive from their home. She had in fact, insisted that they stay in shelter care until one home could be found for all six children. She also explained that she gladly made the six-hour trek to visit them on weekends because the more important issue was the siblings staying together.
At the time of the interviews, the children were living with their mother again. The school-aged children were doing extremely well, earning A’s and B’s in schools, in contrast to the C’s and D’s they received prior to placement. (Another remarkable aspect of this case was that, without exception, everyone involved from the attorneys to the case worker and yes, even the mother and children, reported that foster care was the best thing that ever happened to this family. How often do we hear that?!)
The mother in this last case admitted that they had a rocky start and she resisted participation in therapy initially. She attributed her change of heart to the fact that the child welfare agency was willing to respect her wishes regarding placement of the children and she felt, had gone the extra mile to do what was best for her family. She knew there were some trade-offs, such as a change in schools and of course, the travel required. But she felt the agency had done their best to support her and the children to make the situation work.
I cannot claim to have always made the right call regarding sibling placements (or any other issue, for that matter). In fact, there were times when I, as a case worker, argued in court for sibling separation. In retrospect, I think I was wrong in some instances and would stand by my recommendation in other cases. What I do know is this; when it came to important factors to consider, my beliefs regarding the relative importance of the many issues at stake, sibling connections often took a backseat to other factors, such as distance or access to services. In some cases it was policy that dictated I do what was best for one in lieu of what was best for all.
I do want to make clear, I believe that issues such as visitation, educational stability, and proximity are all important for children. The difficult part of child welfare work is deciding which is MOST important. My observation has been that this topic–sibling relationships–often lands near the bottom of the list of criteria for placements. As a case worker, I often treated it as if that were the case. In retrospect, I believe it deserves more attention.
My next blog post will be the ‘sequel’ to this topic. Stay tuned….