Avoiding Sibling Separation in Adoption

Barring sibling abuse, everything possible should be done by orphanages, adoption agencies, caring adoption practitioners, and prospective adopters to maintain kinship connections and avoid subjecting children who have already lost parents to additional loss.
09/29/2015 10:32 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Michael Allen Potter and his brother and sister were taken from their schizophrenic mother and adopted separately. He writes in "Le Roi Inconnu":

"I stare at people more than I should on the subway. .... One of my greatest fears is to be two seats behind my brother or my sister and not realize it until they've stepped onto the platform and the doors are closing behind them. Whenever I leave the house, I have it in the back of my mind that today might be the day that one of them grabs my sleeve on the street."

This shadow follows those separated from siblings, blocking the light of truth, reconciliation and wholeness. Many describe knowing they have a sibling they are separated from as having a piece of themselves missing.

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It has been reported that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have adopted a Syrian orphan. These currently unconfirmed rumors (like those of Jennifer Aniston adopting) have circulated for at least a year, and are doubtful given that Syria, as a Muslim country, does not allow adoption as we know it, except under special circumstances.

Already the stars' adoring fans are rolling out the humanitarian banner and cheering yet another example of their seemingly unlimited love of children. Angelina, it's been reported, fell in love with and wanted to adopt three Syrian war "orphans."

"They were all brothers and the middle child could speak some English. Angelina was heartbroken to learn the three of them had seen their father taken away by Syrian soldiers, and their home was also bombed. And they lost their mother in the bombing."

Brad Pitt's representative previously denied that they are planning to adopt a child in Syria, and I very much hope the reports are not true; that the famed couple did not choose to take just one of three brothers leaving the others behind, especially in a war zone. One would also hope that Angelina's work with the UN, human rights, and, in particular, refugees, would make her keenly aware that natural disasters and armed conflicts create extreme vulnerability for the exploitation and trafficking of children. International Social Services, the Red Cross, and The Hague all warn against a repeat of the Vietnam Baby Lift and the post Haitian missionary work that too hastily grabbed up children.

Hollywood tabloids claim that Brad thought "going from six children to nine was just way too much" and was, reportedly and rightly, concerned about how it would impact their other kids, so they allegedly "compromised" on adopting just one of the three.

Would they have the right to choose to adopt just one of the three? Yes, if Syria allowed them to. And many would agree with them that it was the wise choice to make for their family. They would not be alone in separating siblings for adoption. Various versions of this paraphrased lament have appeared on adoption blogs and in human-interest stories:


"We fell in love with [2, 3, 4 brothers and/or sisters] and it broke our hearts when after agonizing over the decision, we realized that we could only handle adopting one."

It is in fact preferable to be honest about your limitations. No one should feel obligated to take on an entire family when they only intended to adopt one child. Getting in over your head in adoption has led to tragic results from terminating or disrupting adoptions to abuse. Others have gone online and found strangers willing to take their children off their hands, often unknowingly handing them off to pedophiles, who are eager to grab up such unwanted kids as happened to Arkansas State representative Justin Harris.

Very special people can take on entire families in need. Not all can, or should. It is crucial to be brutally truthful about your emotional, physical and financial capabilities and both spouses or partners must be totally onboard. Few things are crueler to a child in need than to be taken and then later rejected. Pragmatically evaluating your limitations will also spare adopters the pain, shame, guilt - and scorn - of disrupting or terminating an adoption. If you already have children in your household, their feelings and ability to accept and adjust need to be prioritized. Consider the burden of becoming displaced as the oldest child or the "baby" of the family and take into account any special needs of children already in the home.

The Dilemma

Falling in love with a sibling group but only being able to realistically care for one, feels like being stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Inquisitr article about Brad and Angelinadescribes the dilemma as being "forced to decide." Those faced with what seems like Sophie's Choice feel trapped in an either/or duality and can experience pressure to take all of the sibs or adopt just one.

The book, Finding Fernanda by Erin Siegal describes how those in this dilemma fear that their adoption facilitator will look unkindly on them, "blackball" them or move them to the bottom of the list if they turn an opportunity down. No ethical child-centered adoption practitioner, however, would suggest, much less encourage or pressure you to separate siblings. Less than reputable adoption agencies and practitioners, however, may separate siblings in order to make two or more full placement fees. Some have even separated twins including those that are identical.

It is important to ask if the child you are planning to adopt has any siblings that have been placed with families elsewhere and try everything possible to ensure all the siblings maintain contact. Also ask to be notified if the mother of the child you're adopting has a subsequent child who also needs placement. Every effort should be made to facilitate contact between the children.

Being adopted from an orphanage or foster care leaves children riddled with survivor guilt about leaving their "crib mates" behind. Imagine how much worse to leave your brothers or sisters behind, especially in a war zone. Ellen Singer, LCSW, with The Center for Adoption Support and Education, Inc. says of the sibling bond:

"Sibling relationships are potentially the longest relationship we will ever have. Mental health professionals have recently placed more recognition on their significance, and some even believe that they are more influential than the relationships with our parents, spouses, or children!"

Two-thirds of children in U.S. foster care have a sibling also in care. These children often are placed separately or become separated. They describe being separated from their siblings as "an extra punishment, a separate loss, and another pain that is not needed."

"Sibling relationships are emotionally powerful and critically important not only in childhood but over the course of a lifetime." "Sibling Issues in Foster Care and Adoption," Child Welfare Information Gateway

Child welfare recognizes the "traumatic consequences" of children in state care who become separated from their siblings.

Becky Swain, clinical psychologist with a Doctorate in educational psychology addresses the lifetime burden in "How Does Adoption Affect Siblings Who Get Separated?"

"In cases where the oldest sibling has assumed the responsibility for parenting younger siblings, separation of siblings may influence multiple negative effects. The younger siblings, who may continue to grieve the absence of the biological parent's loving support, now face the loss of the secure attachment developed with the older sibling. The oldest sibling experiences grief and apprehension when separated from the younger siblings she adores. Sadly, the outcome of the separation is a double loss for the siblings."

Maintaining these connections is so important to the well-being of these children that The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was initiated in 2008 requiring States to make reasonable efforts to maintain sibling connections in order to receive Federal funding.

Thinking Outside the Box

So you're faced with a sibling group but can only handle one. Logic and common sense tells us that doing "something" is better than doing nothing, right? No. Not when that "something" involves the cruelty of separating siblings.

The choices are not binary. Demand for children to adopt is high. A child or sibling group you decide against will find another family better equipped for them. Children who have been re-homed reportedly flourish better in a family without other children or where they are the youngest, not the oldest. And there is likely a better fit for you and your family and ample adoption practitioners who will be more than glad to find a child for you.

Brad and Angelina have the resources - financially and in terms of influence, clout and connections - and given that Angelina is a Special Envoy of UN High Commissioner for Refugees, I would hope for a far more humanitarian solution such as flying the three children out of Syria and finding them a family that is able and more than willing to raise the them together. They could go further and establish a charity to find homes for many more Syrian children who are authentically orphaned.

Selfless versus Selfish

Expectant mothers faced with an unexpected pregnancy or who are in crisis - financial or otherwise - are often told it is a courageous and selfless sacrifice to do what is difficult but best for their child. They are told it is the loving thing to "let go."

If we expect mothers who have carried a child for nine months to bravely put the best interest of their child first, why should we expect any less of those seeking to obtain an unrelated child? Why should adopters not be asked to put the needs and best interest of the children they are thinking of adopting before their own need or desire for a child that might justify separating families?

Consider how your choices will impact the child you desire, a child you want to give the best to. Will he feel less that grateful for having been separated from his siblings? Michael Allen Potter writes:

"Then the anger starts to creep back into my consciousness at all of the lost days and irrevocable nights that could have been spent with my siblings. Fuck the person who made these decisions thirty years ago (while eating lunch one day at their desk?) and sealed the records and court papers that would make us strangers for the rest of our lives. And fuck the file cabinet that holds the notarized documents, coffee stained and yellow with age, that state explicitly that I must never call my sister or send my brother a birthday present."

When a family is not equipped to take a sibling group, efforts must be found to find one that is or weigh the option of leaving the siblings together in state care or an orphanage - together - which many believe is preferable to splitting siblings up.

Barring sibling abuse, everything possible should be done by orphanages, adoption agencies, caring adoption practitioners, and prospective adopters to maintain kinship connections and avoid subjecting children who have already lost parents to additional loss.