Theresa Burns was ready for the call on that September night.
Two brothers, 5 years old and 7, were in DSS custody, unable to live with their mother because of her substance abuse. Already traumatized, they faced saying goodbye to each other if they went to different foster families.
Months of training had prepared Burns for opening her home – and her heart – to siblings in foster care. She took the boys to her house, promising them a safe place where they’d be together.
“They were leaving the only parent they knew and they needed each other,” she says. “I told them that we’d be helping their mom do what she needed to do for them to go back home.”
Burns works as a professional foster caregiver through Neighbor to Family, a nationally accredited and evidence-informed program that keeps siblings in foster care together. Created in 1994 by Gordon Johnson, the former head of the Illinois Department of Children and Families, it has served more than 11,000 abused and neglected children. Three grants from The Duke Endowment totaling $175,000 have supported the program in Charleston, S.C.
The goal is to provide comprehensive services to parents and children, and help them grow into stronger families.
Of the nearly 500,000 children in foster care in the United States, Neighbor to Family estimates that 65-85 percent have at least one other sibling in care. Only 25 percent of those children are placed together.
“Sibling relationships are emotionally powerful and critically important not only in childhood, but also over the course of a lifetime,” write Jim Rast and Jessica Rast in the social work journal “Families in Society.” “For children in foster care the most stable and important relationship in their lives is often with their siblings.”
Placing siblings together became a national goal in 2008, the authors write, but many local and state programs are showing little change – “and the overall placement of siblings together appears to have not improved.”
Sometimes siblings are separated if one child needs a higher level of care. In other cases, a wide range of ages could make a single placement difficult. But, according to the article, “almost two thirds of sibling groups are separated due to administrative reasons or lack of foster homes willing to take the whole sibling group.”
McBee Zimmerman, executive director of Neighbor to Family in Charleston, says preserving family relationships is vital for child well-being. Siblings kept together tend to have fewer emotional and behavioral difficulties than those placed apart. They experience higher rates of stability, a shorter time in foster care, and less trauma.
“They’re already traumatized by being removed from the home,” she says. “Separating them just causes further distress.”
She speaks of one instance where the siblings were 2, 6 and 10. The oldest had been in three or four different foster homes and needed advanced care. But instead of isolating her because of her special needs, she was placed with a Neighbor to Family caregiver in a home with her brother and sister.
“It’s just amazing the difference that we see now,” she says.
Zimmerman was working as a licensed professional counselor in 2012 when Neighbor to Family’s founder asked her to lead the program in Charleston. He talked about “revolutionizing” the way foster care is done, and Zimmerman says that’s a fitting word.
“We’re a change agent for a different way to do this difficult work,” she says. “That’s what Mr. Johnson envisioned from the beginning.”
A Team Approach
With offices in South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia and Florida, Neighbor to Family relies on foster parents who have been recruited to serve siblings. They go through 90 hours of training before the first child comes into their care, followed by 50 hours of training each year. As professional foster caregivers, they’re compensated above and beyond typical rates.
“We’re professionalizing foster parents to where they’re highly trained,” Zimmerman says. “They receive a higher salary because of what we expect from them.”
The caregivers become vital members of the treatment team, working with a case manager, therapist and family advocate to determine each child’s needs. Based on that assessment, they arrange an array of services, including therapy, medical care and academic support.
The model also focuses on engaging the biological parents. The family advocate connects them to resources for becoming self-sufficient and supervises visitation with the children. Foster caregivers serve as parenting mentors. Family reunification is the goal.
“The mentoring piece is a very important part of our model,” says Tony Everett, vice president of programs for Neighbor to Family. “We want to work with the birth parents on whatever they need so they can get their kids back quickly.”
Chance to Heal
In Charleston, Zimmerman works closely with the Department of Social Services to keep sibling groups intact or reunite them if they’ve been placed in different homes. The program works through 11 licensed foster families; five more will soon be onboard.
Since opening in May 2012:
- Her office has served 55 children in 18 sibling groups.
- Their average length of stay in foster care has been less than nine months; the state average, according to data from 2013 and 2014, is more than a year.
- Of the children served, 96 percent have maintained their foster care placement (as opposed to making multiple moves while in care).
- 95 percent of the children have maintained their school placement.
- Seven sibling groups have been reunited with their biological families. Not one child has returned to foster care.
On a recent afternoon, the children living with Theresa Burns arrive for a weekly visit with their mom. They give her butterfly pictures colored in orange and blue. They show their new school photos – two boys in gray vests and ties, brown hair cut in a fringe of straight bangs, faces bright with gap-toothed smiles.
As the family advocate supervises, they join their mom in making fruit pizza.
The two brothers – Burns’ first placement – have been with her for eight months. The youngest still wakes at night, she says, but the nightmares are less frequent. The oldest, behind grade level when he entered school, recently won an award for reading 100 books.
Burns is passionate about Neighbor to Family’s mission.
“It’s about helping someone get their children back,” she says, “and making sure the children get a chance to heal.”
Learn more about Neighbor to Family