It is not uncommon to have siblings placed in different foster or adoptive families. The reasons vary widely from practical or logistical to special needs or complicated family structures or – like in our case – after their first adoption breakdown the children’s placement plan was changed.
Even though the siblings are developing new roots and creating a new history in separate adoptive families it is really important to facilitate regular contact with each other to deepen those all-so-important first roots. We have facilitated a few already (the last one a few days ago) so I thought I jot down a few observations.
My 9 point list is:
This is usually agreed upon in the new placement plan with keeping the children’s best interest in mind. Ours was originally quite a lot; 6 times a year. That means every single school holiday! However, when Sibling was placed they needed more time to settle so the first few meetings were cancelled. Then our boys came to us and we embarked on our own turbulent adventure and it was decided that meeting up at this time would not serve the boys’ best interest so a significant time passed before the siblings saw each other again.
The other factor was, of course, the feelings of the children. 1 boy was missing Sibling a lot and kept asking for a meeting, while the other boy hated the idea of meeting up because it reminded him of their chaotic past. He was quite vocal about it and his behaviour deteriorated a week before the meeting and lasted for days after Contact. Eventually their SW agreed that direct contact wasn’t in his best interest so he didn’t have to attend any more and could just write a card instead. Logistically it was a nightmare to take only one, but not the other. Not to mention the fact that even though he didn’t come, he was still thinking about it and then he would end up with a meltdown anyways…Distance
Distance was also a deciding factor in reducing the number of contacts. It is not easy to coordinate 2 families’ diaries for every single school holiday or agree to a location that is acceptable to both families. Sibling’s family has already moved once since we started meeting up and there is no guarantee we won’t end up at the opposite sides of this country before our children turn 18.
So, we finally nailed down a day that works for everybody and even agreed on who will drive more. Now, onto the next challenge: should we meet in a park or a playhouse; indoors or risk the British weather; should we go to a place with free entry or is it ok for both families to pay entrance fee to a place? Luckily, we both have annual passes with National Trust so it was one less thing to worry about, but for the last contact we went to Beamish open air museum with a family entrance fee of £50 (you can only purchase yearly passes).
For the first meeting we just met in a park for about an hour. We knew there will be challenges and meltdowns and we didn’t want to prolong the time. On the other hand I was trying to put myself in their position; how would I react if I could only see my closest relative for a short time every 2 months… It’s very difficult to plan, especially since most of our children don’t do well with unpredictability so you can’t ‘just wing it’.
For our latest contact we (as in the 2 mothers) agreed to spend the whole day in the same place and meet up a few times, but also allow time for each family to enjoy the day separately. This seemed to work really well for our 2 families and it also gave us opportunities to put some distance between the siblings when they were getting close to being overwhelmed. I think all in all we spent about 3 hours together and 2-3 hours apart.
We planned to meet at the gates and go in together; with 4 adults and 6 children it is quite a task! We laughed when all four adults said it almost simultaneously ‘Toilet first‘ before we went outside. We took the train to the old town and sat on the hill for a joint picnic. It was interesting to see the children were excited to see each other, yet they kept their distance and it wasn’t a question in their minds weather they should sit with their ‘old family’ or ‘new families’. After lunch the kids played tag together so the grown ups could catch up and compare notes.
In previous meetings we tried to ‘push the siblings together’ to play a ball game or in the sandpit, but eventually we had to conclude that it will not work. We have to give them space and time to get used to the idea that they are together again after a long break. Even after the ice is broken it takes time for them to actually invite the Sibling to join in whatever game they are playing. Snoops (7) is perfectly happy playing alone and can entertain himself for hours while shutting the outside world out completely. He learnt over this last year to let Goofs (6) join in, but Sibling really struggled to break in and join them. Consequently, Sibling played with new siblings instead, where at least Sibling was familiar with the children and their playing habits.
Naturally we took lots of pictures and before we said good byes we posed for the compulsory group photo – again, the children stood close to their new respective families. To onlookers it seemed two families, who are friends, decided to hang out together. In reality we don’t know much about each other and frankly we don’t force the friendship too much either. We are polite and kind to each other, we know the names of all their birth children (whom our two boys refer to as cousins!), but that’s about it.
Once everything is sorted the question comes: ‘When to tell the children about the upcoming Contact?‘ For Snoops I said it as soon as we agreed to it because I knew he was very much looking forward to it. I also made him promise not to say it to Goofs. I even tried to reason with him ‘you know he always gets upset and we don’t want him to be upset for days...’ but Snoops just can’t keep a secret and he really enjoyed the power dynamics of ‘I know something that you don’t and I am not telling you haha…’ As you can imagine, it didn’t go down well for anybody; I was cross with him for saying it, Goofs was cross with him for saying it; Snoops was (at the end) cross with me for telling him in the first place… Needless to say we didn’t have a lovely drive to Beamish. The only thing that made it bearable for Goofs was that I promised him he didn’t even have to say ‘Hi’ to Sibling if he didn’t want to and we told him we will do lots of discovering without the other family.
Before previous Contacts we noticed a definite build up of Big Feelings in his little body. He was feeling all sorts: happiness to see Sibling; sadness of not seeing Sibling for so long; sentimentality when he remembers the happier days together with Sibling; anxiety that the all too familiar chaos will return too if he sees Sibling; anger that he and Sibling are separated; gratefulness that we take him to see Sibling and confusion because all these feelings didn’t make much sense. No wonder he felt his tummy was exploding… These are the moments when a small sweet treat works like magic! To alleviate some of his worries I always go through the same mantra: ‘We are just going to meet up for X minutes. We will all be there trying to have a good time. When the X minutes are up, you, your brother, daddy and I will go back to our car and go back to our family house. Nothings is going to change. We love you very much.’
We arrived to the car park almost at the same time by coincidence. Sibling and Snoops almost got ran over by another car; they just couldn’t wait to hug each other so they ran across the car park. It was a very sweet moment. Goofs was hiding behind me, but as soon as Sibling came over he was over the Moon – so much for him not wanting to be there…
In the past we tried the formal greeting etiquette and say hello to everybody properly. These days we just enjoy watching the children hug each other. Each time I am reminded how complicated their imaginary family tree must look like in their heads and how bittersweet each meeting is. It’s really heartbreaking to see how happy they are to see each other if the long and tight hugs are anything to go by.
Nobody likes saying good bye. Especially when you don’t know when will you see them again. For children even ‘next week’ seems light years away, let alone ‘in 2 months time’. Not to mention they are still not trusting us that there will be a next time at all! To help them prepare for the departure I keep giving them warnings ‘you have 10 more minutes to play’, ‘we are leaving in 5 minutes’. I always discuss with the other mother ‘who is leaving first‘. It’s important so one family can pack up and start the goodbyes and eventually walk away, while the other family very clearly will not follow them.
In the beginning we made the mistake of lingering around for one last photo / a group hug / a quick chat to discuss the next meeting and it just created lots of prolonged anxiety. Now we just look at the time, say our quick byes, the children hug each other and we very swiftly disappear from each other’s view.
Naturally not all feelings get to be processed while the meeting is on so the car ride home is always a time of reflection. I usually asks them questions like ‘What was the best part about meeting up?’ ‘What made you happy / angry / sad / nervous today?’ We also go through the pictures on my phone, while I keep verbalising happy thoughts like ‘how wonderful it is to see Sibling’ or ‘today was a good day, because you got to play together with Sibling.’ Sometimes it takes days to recover from seeing Sibling and move on from those stirred up emotions. Goofs’ behaviour is a good indicator of where is he with processing. I usually give the teachers the heads up of what happened over the weekend and so far they have been very understanding in managing potential meltdowns, which normally would be very difficult to explain otherwise. During these days we try to spend even more time together as a family, eat their comfort food for dinner and keep repeating our mantra.
Well, these are some of my experiences. I would love to hear what works for you guys!