Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bill would encourage visits among split-up siblings

Complications arise when children go to separate foster homes or one ages out of care.

Lindsey Cherry has six brothers and sisters, but she doesn't know much about them.

They were split up after they entered foster care when Cherry, now 21, was 13. Under state rules, sibling visitation is largely left to the discretion of caseworkers and guardians.

Those no longer in foster care can't always contact their younger brothers and sisters without consent -- not always an easy task when family relationships are strained.

Some Indiana lawmakers want to change that system to encourage more contact between siblings and to allow children to request visits when possible. Bill sponsor Sen. Mike Delph, R-Carmel, noted that sibling bonds are often the longest-lasting relationships people have.

"We need to make sure that we do all we can to uphold that sibling bond," said Delph, who has three brothers.

The bill, which has yet to have a hearing in the legislature, would allow children in foster care to request visits if it is in their best interest. If the Department of Child Services denies a visit request, the child or a specially appointed advocate could petition a juvenile court to intervene.

Cherry thinks the proposal could help people in situations similar to hers. There were times growing up when she wouldn't even know where some of her siblings were living. When two of her brothers were adopted out-of-state, their new parents didn't want the boys focusing on their past, so they didn't encourage visits, Cherry said.

Cherry, who is married with a 10-month-old daughter, wants to build stronger connections with her siblings.

"Before we got taken away, we all were together and were very, very close," she said. "Now, we're not really as close as I think we should be. Being separated like that, it's really, really hard to be able to see them or spend time with them."

DCS encourages sibling visits when possible and seeks foster homes and adoptive parents willing to take in several children from the same family, spokeswoman Susan Tielking said.

Case managers create visit schedules, and DCS policy acknowledges the importance of sibling relationships.

"Biological siblings share past experiences and family history," the policy states. "Children need to integrate their past with their future in order to have continuity and to develop a clear understanding of their identity."

But the visitation plans can be a struggle for foster parents. If a family has three or four foster children, each with several siblings, logistics can become difficult, said Chris Morrison, executive director of the Indiana Foster Care and Adoption Association, an organization of foster and adoptive parents.

"Most people try to do the right thing," she said. "This (bill) kind of sends a message out to kids in care that we do think their life connections and their family connections are important."

Children in foster care might already have lost their homes and parents, said social worker Michelle Clarke, who works with foster youths in Indianapolis. Losing contact with brothers and sisters is especially painful for them.

"That's taking a big part of them away," she said. "They kind of go through another stage of grief."

Christina Wolfe, 22, Indianapolis, said she has been in and out of foster care her whole life. She said her biological mother now cares for three of her younger siblings and won't let her visit.

"I'm constantly worrying about them," she said.

Wolfe, like Cherry, said it's important for children to have the right to request visitation. Supporters of the bill say a clear-cut process with an impartial observer could help break through family squabbles.

Original Article with comments-

Bill would encourage visits among split-up siblings IndyStar.com

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