Foster care can split families - Case could force the state to work harder to keep siblings together



It's been 10 years since Jenn Herrick left foster care, but she still trembles recalling the desolation she felt after she was separated from her four brothers and sisters at the age of 14.

She was shuffled alone through four foster homes, ultimately ending up with an alcoholic foster mother who often told her she would never amount to anything. When her repeated requests to be reunited with her siblings were ignored, she stopped trying to make friends, and her grades plummeted.

"It's a horrible, isolated feeling," said Herrick, now 28, tears clouding her pale blue eyes. "No one wants to hear what has happened to you. If you have an opinion, it doesn't matter. If you have an emotion, no one cares."

For Herrick's little sisters, Mary Herrick and Lissa Herrick Osborne, their years in foster care were far from perfect. But they were allowed to stay together during that time, and they said they survived the experience by clinging to each other.

They could "be each other's truth" because they shared the same scarred history, said Mary Herrick, 24, now a social worker in Seattle.

"It was Mary and me against the world," added Osborne, 25, a legal advocate at a battered women's shelter in Everett. "Jenn has had the hardest life of us all, because she didn't have anyone."

For decades, the psychiatrists, social workers and counselors who work with foster children have recognized the damage done when brothers and sisters are separated in the state's child welfare system.

Now that system may be forced to change. In a case being watched nationally, the Washington Supreme Court is considering whether to require the Department of Social and Health Services to keep siblings together as they make their way through the state's chaotic foster care system.

Of the nearly 6,100 Washington foster children with siblings in the system, 50 percent have been separated from at least one of their siblings. And 27 percent have been placed alone without any of their brothers or sisters, according to statistics kept by DSHS.

They are separated in most cases for a simple reason: Washington has never managed to find the money and resources to recruit enough foster parents willing to take on intact families of troubled kids.

Family Photo
A family photo of Herrick children: front row, Mary Herrick and Lissa; second row, Jenn and Mike; and in the back, Chris.
For now, state Child Protective Services workers do their best to parcel children out to as few homes as possible, trying to take into account which brothers and sisters seem closest to each other. They say their choices would be less agonizing if they had the resources to keep siblings together.

"We have to separate them, and it has troubled most of us in the field for a long time," said Dawn Cooper, the CPS administrator in Pierce County.

Even when she is dealing with parents who are drug-addicted or abusive, if the agency's placement desk tells her she will have to put five siblings in five different homes, she says she thinks hard about removing them from the home.

"It's easy to say from the outside they should simply be placed and protected," said Cooper, a social worker for 20 years. "I have to look at how attached they are to each other and how much they have relied on each other to get their needs met.

"Sometimes their parents are so checked out emotionally that their siblings are the only emotional link they have . . . So, yes, they are in a bad environment, but do I have something better to offer them?"

DSHS officials say they are trying hard to keep siblings together with limited resources. But they are fighting the reforms being sought in the Supreme Court case because they say it's unlikely that a Legislature facing a projected $2 billion deficit will come up with new money to make those reforms a reality.

What's at stake

The Supreme Court case is an appeal of a sweeping ruling by a Whatcom County Superior Court judge who ordered the state to make reforms to reduce the emotional damage many children suffer as they are shuffled through the foster-care system.

The Whatcom County judge ruled in June that the state must create at least 500 new foster homes, provide mental health treatment for damaged kids, limit the number of moves foster children face and stop separating sibling groups, except when siblings pose a risk to each other.

DSHS estimates those changes would cost $60 million over two years, forcing the agency to slash services for the elderly, the disabled and the troubled parents of foster children themselves.

The biennual budget for DSHS' Children's Administration, which provides child protective services and foster care, is $847 million.

Child advocates are uniformly dismayed by the state's stance, because experience has shown them that brothers and sisters would be spared a great deal of pain if they were kept together.

"It is almost always in the best interest of children to stay together when placed outside the home," said Dr. Eric Trupin, a psychiatrist who directs the public health and justice policy division at the University of Washington's School of Medicine.

Trupin said allowing brothers and sisters to stay together sustains their sense that they are still part of a family and that they have some control over their lives. Splitting them apart sends the message that they cannot depend on anyone.

"Kids begin to relate to everyone as if they are the same, and don't think about the consequences of behaving in ways that are risky or negative," Trupin said.

Many separated siblings turn to drugs and alcohol or start having children of their own too early, he said.

Jim Theofelis is a Seattle mental health counselor who started the Mockingbird Times, a newspaper written by current and former foster children about the foster-care system. He said that when siblings are split up, they often lose the familiar roles that have allowed them to survive years of abuse.

In many cases, the oldest child, usually a daughter, becomes the one who protects the younger kids, feeds them and helps them get off to school.

If the parent-like sister is separated from her younger siblings, she worries about them as a mother might and feels incredible guilt for not being with them. And even if she is placed with caring foster parents, she may not know how to accept love and direction as a normal child would, Theofelis said.

For younger children who depend on older brothers and sisters for love and stability, the separation can be equally devastating. With their protectors gone, they feel isolated and confused, he said.

Amie Watkins, 20, of Everett, was taken away from her family at the age of 3 because her father had sexually abused her. Her family moved away soon after she was placed in care, and she never saw her mother or her brother, Andy, two years her elder, again.

Watkins was never adopted. And as she made her way through a long series of foster and group homes, she often wondered how different her life would have been if Andy had been there with her.

"If I met my brother today, he would be a complete stranger," said Watkins, now married and pregnant with her first child. "I have wanted to know if he was athletic, if he was smart, what his life was like living with my mom and dad. It's so devastating that I was separated from him, because he didn't do anything to me."

Gilbert W. Arias / P-I
Mary Herrick, left, and her sister Lissa Herrick Osborne share a lighter moment as they talk about their foster care. The two said they survived the experience by clinging to each other.

Quest to find each other

As foster children become older, finding lost brothers and sisters can become an obsession. That was the case for 16-year-old Cole, who entered Washington's foster-care system at age 2. (The names of Cole and three of his siblings have been changed to protect their identities.)

His mother was a foster child as well, so badly abused by her own parents and her foster parents that she took refuge in heroin as a teenager. She ultimately had five children while addicted. Cole maintains that his mother, who is now off drugs, "always loved us deep inside."

Cole's younger brother, Isaiah, joined him in foster care as an infant. The two boys were placed together for more than 10 years with a Covington pastor and his wife.

From an early age, the boys say, they were beaten for misdeeds such as being unable to find a lost sock. The couple is now barred from taking in foster children while DSHS investigates the allegations.

As the older child, Cole said he took the bulk of the abuse and finally decided at 12 to move out. He landed in a loving new foster home in Kent.

Around that time, he learned that his mother was pregnant again, and he kept track of her through friends. When his baby sister was found abandoned about a year later, he persuaded his Kent foster mother to help him track down the baby in the foster-care system.

Monica, now 3, came to live with Cole's new family soon afterward. Meanwhile, back at the Covington foster home, Isaiah said he was being beaten more regularly. After one particularly vicious beating earlier this year, he too left. He was welcomed into Cole's foster family in September.

Their current foster mother, a deeply religious woman, said watching the three siblings' relationships blossom has been nothing short of a miracle.

"They just connect like magnets," she said.

Their reunion is somewhat remarkable because it is not mandated by law. Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed a law that required judges, social workers and foster parents to arrange for regular visits and phone contact between foster siblings who must be separated in care.

But the new requirement does not apply once the rights of the children's birth parents have been terminated, or once children are adopted or have found a legal guardian."There is nothing legally to make the new parents who have adopted a child have visits with their siblings," said Linda Lillevich, who represents parents and children 12 and older in dependency proceedings for The Defender Association, a non-profit firm that provides public defense in King County. "Morally, it seems like they ought to have contact."

That problem has kept Cole and Isaiah from being reunited with their youngest brother, 11-year-old Justin, whose foster mother has become his legal guardian. Through a state social worker, they received word in August that she had an opening in her home and was hoping to fill it with one of Justin's siblings. But after learning that his two brothers and sister were in a happy, lasting placement, she was not willing to let Justin see them.

Cole has had a hard time accepting her decision.

"It's my dream . . . what I have been praying for, to live with my (siblings) instead of in separate homes," he said.

Lillevich said that when children ask her for help getting in touch with adopted brothers and sisters, the best she can do is ask a caseworker to check whether the adoptive parent is willing to make contact.

But many adoptive parents who have done the hard work of making a troubled foster kid part of their family often worry that contact with a brother or sister still stuck in the foster-care system will destabilize their child. Interestingly, data collected by the Seattle-based Casey Family Foundation in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Social Services show that brothers and sisters who are kept together when they are first placed in foster care are less likely to face multiple moves.

Fran Gutterman, who directs a foster-care-system reform effort for Casey, said a Boston pilot program found that well-supported foster parents who took in large sibling groups became more willing to hold on to one particularly difficult child.

"They see the connection (the brothers and sisters have) and respond to it as caregivers," she said. Social workers and other professionals who work with foster children confirm that once brothers and sisters are placed separately, reuniting them is difficult if they don't end up returning home or going to live with relatives. Often, one set of siblings is in a home they like, and so it seems wrong to move them.

Especially troublesome are situations in which one child adjusts well to a home, but a brother or sister -- usually older -- battles with the foster parents, social workers say. The older child wants to be moved, but should the younger child's life also be disrupted so he can stay with his or her sibling?

In Pierce County, a new receiving facility for foster children called Cedar House is working to ensure that siblings can stay together when they come into the system, rather than be sent to multiple homes immediately after being taken from their parents. The facility can take as many as 12 children for up to 30 days. Cooper said it gives social workers time to scour the system for a placement that will stick.

Unless the state Supreme Court mandates that the state create more places such as Cedar House, many foster children will have to wait until adulthood to have control over how much they can see their siblings.

Home again

Perhaps not surprisingly, the insatiable drive foster kids have to know their families does lead to many reconnections once they leave the system.

The Herrick siblings have that happy ending to their story.

The girls were placed in foster care a few years after it came to light that their father had been sexually abusing them. Their mother, a caring but damaged woman, found that she was not able to care for her five children after he was gone.

While Jenn Herrick was bounced through various homes, Osborne and Mary Herrick were placed together, first in the home of a loving school librarian and later with an aunt and uncle. They went on to get college degrees and pursue professional careers.

"I have felt really seriously guilty, because we had so much more opportunity than (our brothers and sister) had," Mary Herrick said.

Jenn Herrick moved to Arizona after she graduated from high school, worked odd jobs and had her first child at 21. She has supported herself as a child-care provider and has been working toward a degree in early childhood education by taking community college courses at night.

Just before Thanksgiving, Jenn Herrick moved to Seattle with her 6-year-old son and 1-year old daughter to be closer to her sisters, who live in Seattle, and her two brothers in Tacoma.

She and her kids will be living with Mary Herrick, Osborne and Osborne's husband in their Greenwood apartment until she gets on her feet.

"It's really good just having family," Jenn Herrick said.


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