In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Foster care and siblings

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Compilations
  • Views of Current and Former Foster Youth on Sibling Placement
  • Role of Sibling Relationships
  • Sibling Placements in Foster Care
  • Sibling Violence and Abuse
  • Interventions to Support Positive Sibling Relationships
  • Sibling Relationships Post-Permanency

Social Work Foster care and siblings
Wendy Wiegmann, Anthony Gómez, Ivy Hammond
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0315


Since the 1980s, researchers have explored the role of sibling relationships and the way that they influence child development, including understandings of emotional closeness, attachment, loyalty, identity, relationships, and conflict. Over time, the seminal work of Rebecca Hegar and Audrey Begun focused this scholarship on the losses and negative consequences associated with sibling separation for children and youth entering foster care. Additional research followed echoing and expanding upon this premise, informed by the personal accounts of children, caregivers, and child welfare professionals. Drawing upon the availability of administrative and other data, scholars ultimately began to document the prevalence of conjoint sibling placements in foster care systems all over the world, and the factors associated with decisions to place brothers and sisters together or apart. Common predictors of sibling placements include whether or not children entered foster care at the same time, the age and sex of sibling sets, the size of sibling groups, and the availability of placements that could accommodate siblings, as well as whether relatives were available for placement. In the United States, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 codified the importance of sibling relationships and required that child welfare agencies make reasonable efforts to keep siblings together or in contact while in care. Similar stipulations were also developed in other counties, including the United Kingdom and Australia. Research on sibling relationships, conjoint placements, and connections for children and youth in foster care has grown over the last three decades, with increasing attention on sibling abuse and violence, as well as child and case outcomes associated with conjoint sibling placements. Of particular note is recent scholarship documenting the effectiveness of interventions that support positive sibling relationships.

General Overviews and Compilations

Scholars have long considered the nature of sibling relationships and how they are impacted by involvement in the child welfare system. Consequently, several reviews provide rich syntheses of the empirical evidence documenting the impact of foster care on the ability of siblings to live with and see each other. Additional reviews document the impact of continued relations on child welfare outcomes for sibling groups. Mullender 1999 offers a seminal overview of early sibling literature that includes firsthand accounts from siblings, caregivers, and professionals. Sanders 2004 extends this work by using a theoretical lens to explore the impacts of sibling relationships on child development, and how such relationships may ameliorate the consequences of adversity that many children experience. Similarly, Katz and Hamama 2018 provides a scoping review of literature documenting sibling relationships within the context of child maltreatment, paying careful attention to the assessment of sibling relationship quality and placement outcomes. McCormick 2010 and Begun and Mersky 2011 both review sibling relationships within foster care, evaluating factors that influence placement decisions and outcomes. Shlonsky, et al. 2005 offers a similar review, but uniquely considers the methodological challenges associated with studying the outcomes of siblings in foster care. Hegar 2005 provides a robust review of international literature on sibling groups in foster care from 1988 to 2003. Jones 2016 picks up where Hegar 2005 leaves off, and reviews international literature on sibling groups from 2005 to 2014, arguing that the perspectives of youth are missing from this body of research. Seale and Damiani-Taraba 2017 reviews literature examining the impact of sibling placements on youth mental health, emphasizing literature that uplifts foster youth voices. Finally, Silverstein and Smith 2008 provides a volume of work that integrates research, anecdotal experience, and clinical insights to advocate for changes in child welfare policy and practice surrounding sibling placements.

  • Begun, A. L., and J. P. Merksy. 2011. Sibling relationships and out-of-home care. In Sibling development: Implications for mental health practitioners. Edited by J. Caspi, 321–340. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

    Thematic exploration of sibling relationships for youth in foster care. Discusses significance of sibling relationships, factors that impact decisions to place children together, and outcomes.

  • Hegar, R. L. 2005. Sibling placement in foster care and adoption: An overview of international research. Children and Youth Services Review 27.7: 717–739.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2004.12.018

    International literature review on sibling groups in foster care covering period from 1988 to 2003, focusing on outcomes for children. Findings suggest that joint sibling placements are stable and beneficial to children.

  • Jones, C. 2016. Sibling relationships in adoptive and fostering families: A review of the international research literature. Children & Society 30.4: 324–334.

    DOI: 10.1111/chso.12146

    International literature review on sibling groups in foster care covering the period from 2005 to 2014, also focusing on outcomes for children. Author argues that existing literature is missing the perspectives of children and youth in foster care.

  • Katz, C., and L. Hamama. 2018. The sibling relationship in the context of child maltreatment: What do we know? What are the directions for the future? Trauma, Violence and Abuse 19.3: 343–351.

    DOI: 10.1177/1524838016659878

    Scoping review on what has been researched in regard to sibling relationships in the context of child maltreatment. Examines intimate partner violence, experiences of child maltreatment, risk assessments for siblings of maltreated children, and relationships following placement.

  • McCormick, A. 2010. Siblings in foster care: An overview of research, policy, and practice. Journal of Public Child Welfare 4.2: 198–218.

    DOI: 10.1080/15548731003799662

    Literature review on sibling placements in foster care, including history of policy and practice, the importance of the sibling relationship, the effects of separation, barriers to joint placement, placement patterns, and outcomes.

  • Mullender, A., ed. 1999. We are family: Sibling relationships in placement and beyond. London: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.

    Early compilation of research literature on sibling placements in foster care. Includes firsthand accounts of siblings, caregivers, and professionals.

  • Sanders, R. 2004. Sibling relationships: Theory and issues for practice. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-20306-8

    Theoretical text exploring the importance of sibling relationships for child development, with connections made to how sibling relationships are changed by substance abuse, domestic violence, loss, disability, and mental illness. Authors argue the importance of sibling relationships in promoting resilience, and connections are made to professional practice with families.

  • Seale, C., and G. Damiani-Taraba. 2017. Always together? Predictors and outcomes of sibling co-placement in foster care. Child Welfare 95.6: 1–28.

    Literature review summarizing predictors and outcomes of sibling placement, with particular attention to mental health outcomes. Review also addresses methods for improving relationships of siblings in care and the literature, capturing the views of current and former foster youth. Authors conclude that while sibling placements should be encouraged, decisions should ultimately be based on the quality of attachments.

  • Shlonsky, A., J. Bellamy, J. Elkins, and C. J. Ashare. 2005. The other kin: Setting the course for research, policy, and practice with siblings in foster care. Children and Youth Services Review 27.7: 697–716.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.childyouth.2004.12.019

    Literature review on sibling placements in foster care, including factors which predict separation, the legal context supporting sibling placement, and methodological challenges in studying outcomes for children placed with or separated from their siblings.

  • Silverstein, D. N., and S. L. Smith, eds. 2008. Siblings in adoption and foster care. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    Compilation of research studies, personal accounts, clinical assessments, and legal discussions related to separating siblings in foster care, focusing on the trauma of such separations. Authors use this body of evidence to advocate for changes in child welfare policy, practice, and education that promote the preservation of sibling relationships.

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