Lost But Not Forgotten

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Alia Abbas

As I turn a year older this month of April, it’s important for me to remember what has made me who I am, which includes my unforgotten past and its importance.(Photo courtesy of Alia Abbas).

I was separated from my older sisters at just eight months old. It may sound plain and simple, yet for the rest of my life, I struggled with accepting this truth and achieving closure. Many times, I would find myself twisting the truth, afraid that others mistaken me as a poseur for attention. As for me, I grew up admiring and yearning for the best friends every other girl seemed to have: an older sister. There had been so many emotions and experiences I felt left out of, so many that some nights before bed I was left with a dreary gut feeling and warm tears. Just the next morning everything would be fine, and optimism would diminish the fact that deep inside me was a raw and unhealed feeling of loneliness.

It was only a few years ago that I realized that I could not leave my past untouched. It is the separation that is a part of who I am today, and I realized the importance of acting on what I had experienced. When I had looked for a single voice that could resonate with me and the issues I faced all I faced was silence; I had felt invisible and alone. Today, I want to be that voice in case another child faces this very pain another day, so they know they aren’t alone.

“Splitting up siblings is the most serious problem in our child welfare system today,” stated President and CEO of the Jane Addams Hull-House Association in Chicago Gordon Johnson. His early work directing the Illinois Department of Children and Families led him to understand the far-reaching gaps of child-welfare in the U.S.

Sibling separation is an epidemic that is overlooked universally. According to national data on foster care related siblings, it has been estimated that 75 percent of children in foster care are placed apart from their siblings. A statistical analysis from the Children’s Rights site showed that an average of nearly 443,000 children are in foster care in the U.S. As of 2019, that’s an estimated number of a staggering 332,250 children who were separated from their siblings.

To understand sibling separation struggles, the evaluation between child separation and sibling separation is vital. Child separation refers to the separation of a child from his or her parents, while sibling separation refers to the separation of siblings from each other. There are many impacts of a child’s isolation from a sibling, and these factors contribute greatly to emotional struggles as an adolescent and grown adult and a lack of social support, the neglected nationwide action, and awareness.

“When we split up foster children from their brothers and sisters, we are taking away the only connection they still have to the people they love. The pain literally drives children crazy,” said Johnson.

Children who face sibling separation experience anxiety, grief, guilt, confusion, and pain to a great extent. The number of children who experience these feeling only add on to the growing anxiety statistics amongst children of the nation, which was determined to be 80% of the population in 2015. This issue keeps anxiety at a serious and threatening position as a public health concern. Siblings are essential supporters in each other’s lives, for both emotional and physical development.

Many milestones in life are tough to achieve; that’s why guidance serves as an important factor of growth. Siblings, no matter the age, are usually who children turn to for guidance. They look for advice from siblings in a situation where asking a parent or guardian may not be appropriate to ask, such as self-discovery. Psychologically, sibling relationships help a child understand who they are.

Siblings also impact long-term evolution, such as educational and career progression, romantic relationships, and independence. These adolescent siblings’ despair impacts their future attitudes. They might show signs of maturity early on but can easily hide emotional trauma during their prime years. However, as their life takes on a serious path to independence (e.g. college or their first job) they suddenly feel triggered and tend to revisit the feeling of loss and separation. Many are unaware of the source this feeling stems from, which leads to issues on a lack of proper mental health coverage for these children.

“No one asks who would dare to split up siblings. They just understand, have no concerns or even questions how it happens. To me, nothing is scarier than it being normal for children to grow up apart, and for society to both recognize the fact and accept it.” said Heather Marie, who had been separated from her brother at the age of 13.

This situation is far too often overlooked in child welfare laws and family law practices. There are many cases in which siblings are separated through child custody arrangements during a divorce, such as court trials and the final judicial decisions. Although the legal age for a child to choose which parent to live with varies in state policies, the age falls between 13 to 18 years. With child custody comes many rights. For example, the visitation right is where siblings must have legal permission to visit the other parent or the responsible parent will be in violation of the law.

Other cases of potential sibling isolation could occur in adoptions, name changes, orders of protection, and unhealthy or abusive family relationships. In these situations, children are forced to choose life with one parent over the other. Many times siblings lose contact or are never given the chance for contact, as they might have been separated very early. Often, caseworkers fail to give proper counseling for children and siblings in these situations. Children’s opinions and desires are frequently unheard during their placements. This is common for all cases, including divorce and foster care.

“Speaking from my own experience, I feel incredibly robbed. A judge who never heard me or my brother’s opinion split us up, let alone meet us at all, split us up. That same person took five years of life together from us.” stated Marie.

As my life continues its winding path, it is very much different than the ones my sisters are living, but hopefully, our fight is the same. My fight does not stop here., In fact, individuals can lead the nation into establishing and setting in place policies and legislation that mandate attention to sibling relationships, including raising awareness of these thousands of ongoing suppressed cases. We need to make sure these siblings can access services for care, support, and community, without feeling alone in this process. Child welfare cannot be a lottery for some siblings to win, and others to lose.