08/23/2013 04:56 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2013

The Non-Existent Sibling in U.S. Family Law

"Hardly a week goes by that I'm not presented with a proposed parenting plan that separates siblings"

- Judge Anne Kass

Imagine two child siblings tied together by much more than their sibling title. They love each other dearly and depend on each other for everything. At dawn, they laugh their way through the morning routine, breakfast, and the ride to school. When they cross paths during recess they make sure their eyes meet and nod to each other in an acknowledgment of their unrepeatable bond. After a long school day, they make their way home together and help each other with their home work. They spend the afternoon riding bikes together and can't wait for bedtime when they get to talk and giggle in bed together before mom comes in for the final request for quiet.

Now imagine that the warmth found in this sibling relationship is missing in the marital relationship of their parents. Their parents have been bickering for years and recently decided to divorce. After a lengthy divorce and custody battle the decision was made to split custody. The decision was reached based on the fact that the siblings were in fact half-siblings, the oldest sibling was from dad's previous marriage and the younger one was born to this crumbling union.

When the siblings inquire about being able to see each other after the divorce they are told that since their parents are no longer married they are legally no longer siblings and hence have no visitation rights.

This scenario is in fact the reality in many family law cases including cases of adoption, parental divorce and parental death. Apparently, the majority of domestic-relations law focuses on the parental and matrimonial dyads with little attention given to the sibling bond. This is particularly disturbing considering the overwhelming scientific evidence highlighting the importance of the sibling relationship throughout life.

Empirical investigations by myself and others have revealed that children who have a positive relationship with siblings show greater emotional understanding, greater cognitive abilities, greater social understanding, greater moral sensibility, and better psychological adjustment. These positive findings have been replicated in studies with adolescents and adults.

Beyond the advantages of sibling support in normative situations, researchers and clinicians are beginning to appreciate the advantages of sibling warmth in non-normative family situations. Examining the aggregate of studies on the buffering effects of sibling support indicates that siblings may offer protection for children and adolescents experiencing elevated family turmoil. Siblings have been shown to serve as a buffer for children and adolescents experiencing ecological risk, family distress, divorce, living in single-parent homes, and foster-home placement.

Thankfully, State Rep. Rosita C. Youngblood, D-Philadelphia, has recently introduced House Bill 642 "Standing for siblings to seek partial custody or visitation" before the PA House of Representatives. I am delighted to serve as a consultant on this important legislation and will be testifying on the merits of this bill in front of the Children and Youth Committee this upcoming week in Philadelphia.

Legislation to allow for siblings to seek partial custody or visitation when appropriate is a natural extension of the overwhelming scientific evidence highlighting the critical and unmatched role played by siblings throughout life. By definition, this legislation will be impacting children who have experienced some type of family turmoil. Allowing for the sibling relationship in these circumstances to offer warmth, support, and comfort is clearly in the best interest of children.