Sunday, June 27, 2010


One thing we learned pretty quickly is that sibling relationships can be really complicated for kids who've been in the system for a long time. According to the official record we received when we began weekend visits with T. a year ago, he is the eldest of two siblings. But according to T., he is the middle child of five, four of whom have been raised in foster care since birth.

And of course, T.'s version is the true version. (Technically, they are all half-siblings, since they have different fathers, but that hardly matters as they consider themselves brothers.) When social services took T. from his extended family when he was small, they took him along with his closest sibling who was living in the same home at the time. So in the official record, he became one of two, rather than the third of five. Social services didn't bother recording the fact that his birth mom had three other children - she was nowhere in the picture at the time and the social worker probably didn't even have a way of knowing about her other children. But of course, the birth relatives with whom he is in contact have told him of his other siblings and, despite having met them only once in his life, he considers them all something of a set.

Bringing people together is in his nature. When we recognized this and complimented him on it and made explicit that we would help facilitate his unifying instinct, he responded with great warmth and gratitude. It's a huge part of his identity. Given his history (sixteen foster placements in fifteen years), keeping in touch with his people (friends, family, extended family) is a very big deal. Anything that frustrates that instinct is a source of anxiety for him; anything that facilitates that instinct settles and soothes him.

His younger brother is coming for an overnight visit in two weeks. He lives in a group home. He's on juvenile probation for taking a kitchen knife to school because he was being bullied. He has serious behavioral and developmental challenges. T. invited him for an overnight to celebrate his fourteenth birthday without asking me first. I knew at the time the only possible response was "Fantastic. I'm going to call his social worker and his group home and make sure we have all the permissions we need in order to make that happen. I'd hate for him to be disappointed in any way on his birthday. Let's discuss the particulars together before we get any further." They want to go see a cousin in a nearby town. It's not clear whether she welcomes the visit. Everything about it is epically complicated.

We don't have both boys because T. didn't want to be placed or adopted along with his brother. He asked to be placed for adoption separately. His reasons are hard to explain and easy to understand. He tried to raise this brother for many years, from the time he was around four until the time he was around ten. In that time, they were both molested, physically abused, cycled through numerous foster homes, and finally the younger sibling was taken to a separate placement. When we talk about T.'s history, he often speaks in terms of "we" - what happened to him happened to his brother. To summarize what I intuit to be his feelings on the matter, I'd say he has tremendous survivor guilt, he torments himself about his brother's well-being, and yet he knows that, at least for a time, in order to develop himself he needs to be separate from his brother, so that he can finally be a child rather than a child-parent.

T. tells me that his next tattoo will read "My Brother's Keeper." If you've ever watched a child parent another child, you know how tragic it is to listen to him talk to his brother on the phone. He puts on a stern authoritarian air and counsels his brother with what he must imagine is fatherly wisdom, and it makes him sound so, so young.

So yes, this visit is a very big deal. I expect his brother to feel heartbroken seeing T. at home with us, in circumstances so different than the harsh environment of his group home. I half expect that in the mid-term, T. will propose that his younger brother come to live with us. I am hardly prepared for that, and yet there is only one possible way to respond: yes, of course, let's do some visits and see what we can work out. If T. feels that our home is a suitable safe place for his younger brother, there is really no deeper indication of trust. There is no way to say no. He is our child, and in some sense, his brother is his child and we will just have to stretch that far, if he asks. In an ideal world, I'd love for the county to find a foster family placement for his brother nearby, so that we could bring the boys together with the benefit of two sets of parents, one each. They deserve that intensive, exclusive parenting after what they've been through. But the realities of foster care are about as far away as one can get from an ideal world.


Lynne aka Advocate Mom said...

My first response is to say it will be very hard for T. and his brother to be successful together. It sure is hard for my boys. Even though we have had them 6 years, they have only lived together in our home for 13 months--and of those, the longest stretch was 9 months. Plus--only two of those months I can say that both boys did ok. As a rule, one of them was always in crisis. It is in their nature to recreate the drama of their early life and it was very hard for Older Kid to stop parenting Younger Kid. He still does it sometimes.

I don't tell you this to discourage you. The part of me that roots for the kids sure hope it all works out. I do look forward to hearing more about it.

GB's Mom said...

I can see why you feel you have no choice if T asks. I might feel the same. I don't know if I could pull it off.

marythemom said...

I have to say Lynne has some good points. My kids have a trauma bond that means they trigger each other emotionally all the time.

My son tried (OK still does) to parent all the time. We say constantly, "you're not the parent." We never let the kids supervise each other or tell each other what to do (even if it's just to tell them "Mom said,")

My kids have 3 younger sisters that still live with biomom. My daughter talks about us adopting them if they go into foster care. She told me straight out that if we adopted them, she would be their parent. Believe me if they did come to live with us that would be the first thing we got clear - Hubby and I are the parent!

Don't be surprised if T is kind of half hoping you'd say "No" to having his brother come live with you. I would be sure to be clear with him that you expect him to be the kid and not the parent to his brother. I bet he'd be relieved.


Lulu McCabe said...

Hey thanks for your thoughtful comments! This forum is so helpful and I love hearing from you moms who've been there before. Yes, I am sure the boys have a trauma bond and yes, T. tries to be the alpha parent ALL the time - with us! So I can imagine what he's like with his brother. Great advice to just tell him flat out that we expect him to be a kid, not a parent to his brother - whether it's for a weekend visit or something more should it come to that! I think he'd like to see his brother in a stable foster placement precisely so that he DOESN'T have to ask us to take him in - or field his brother's questions about why they can't be together. I'd love to see that happen too. But the foster system here is so overtaxed and short on foster parents - especially for older boys - his prospects are slim.

Gab said...

These comments reminded me of what my adoptions social worker said last week: that newer research shows that adoptions are most successful when you move the parenting sibling with the youngest one. That is, if you have to break up a large sibling group, to move the oldest and youngest together, especially if they have a parenting-type relationship. It seems from what you all are saying that it doesn't always work out so smoothly in real life. Imagine that.
Once again, Lulu, your thoughtfulness and flexibility are an inspiration to me.

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