A bill mandating a foster youth’s right to stay in contact with their siblings was introduced into the Oregon legislature last month.
House Bill 2216 would expand on existing policy that efforts be made to keep siblings together by also seeking to guarantee visitation and other contact among separated siblings both in and out of the system. The Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OYFC), which is a foster youth-led advocacy organization, sponsored the so-called “sibling bill of rights.”
“This is a really big issue,” said Matt Rosen, director of Foster Youth in Action, a non-profit membership organization that has linked up 17 foster youth advocacy groups, including OFYC. “I’m glad that young people are taking this on at the state level.”
Many foster youth report losing contact completely with their siblings, despite efforts to stay connected. The issue has become a national priority for youth advocates and sibling rights bills have advanced in several states, including California.
In Oregon, about two-thirds of sibling groups in out-of-home foster care are kept intact, but the remaining third are either separated partially or entirely, according to 2014 state data. The Department of Health Services attempts to keep siblings together or in contact, but many foster youth advocates say they don’t feel it is treated by the department as a top priority. It is especially difficult, if not impossible, for foster youth to maintain contact with siblings who have been adopted into a new household.
Sixteen-year-old foster youth DeAnna Baker says she has been entirely shut out of her two younger brothers’ lives ever since the boys were adopted about two years ago by Baker’s former foster parents, with whom she had a strained relationship.
“It’s so traumatic to have them torn away for you,” Baker said. “Foster youth have enough attachment disorders without having their siblings torn away from them.”
Baker and her new foster mother have tried unsuccessfully to contact her brothers’ adoptive parents.
“We called and they wouldn’t answer,” she said. “When we tried to call more, they road-blocked us.”
Even the recent news of a birth in the family is not sure to have reached Baker’s younger brothers.
“My older brother had a baby and we don’t know if my little brothers know they’re uncles,” Baker said.
Baker’s experience helped motivate her to become involved last year as an advocate for the Oregon sibling bill of rights, along with other youth from Oregon Foster Youth Connection. The non-profit brings together current and former foster youth ages 15-24 to advocate for policy change.
Their sibling bill lays out eight provisions that would ensure foster youth have the chance to maintain relationships with their siblings. They include the right to be provided with transportation for visits and the right to have private or less-restrictive communications with siblings than with other acquaintances.
The bill also seeks to ensure contact is encouraged and maintained between adopted children and their siblings.
The bill’s wording is expected to change, but a final version will at least seek to have siblings involved in adoption proceedings so they can advocate for continued visitation, Baker said. Similarly, a sibling contact plan would be included in foster care placements.
The bill also states that siblings have a right to be notified of placement changes or catastrophic events affecting a sibling. Additionally, it seeks to place youth with foster parents who have been trained in the importance of sibling relationships.
Baker’s experience is far too common among foster youth, Rosen of Foster Youth in Action said.
“Those aren’t unusual incidents,” he said. “They’re really common, and they put enormous harm on young people.”
Eighteen-year-old Oregon foster youth Lupe Rankin said she was also separated from her younger brother after Rankin’s adoptive mother kicked the boy out of the house three years ago, setting off a tumultuous series of events.
Rankin herself was kicked out of the house about two years ago. After a year of homelessness, she landed in foster care last year. She is now in her senior year of high school with plans to enroll in college.
But she still doesn’t know the whereabouts of her younger brother, having only been told by her grandmother that he was in foster care in California, and that he was on probation for an unknown offense.
When Rankin got a hold of her brother’s phone number last year and tried to contact him, she was met by several obstacles.
“I reached out and he was unable to respond due to his probation officer and case worker in California,” she said. “I eventually gave up. I said, ‘I can’t persuade these people to let me talk to him or be in his life.’”
Just as Rankin gave up hope last summer of reaching her brother, she attended Oregon Foster Youth Connection’s 2016 Policy Conference, where dozens of youth advocates chose siblings’ rights to be their top legislative priority.
“Foster youth felt like it was a big issue that they couldn’t see their siblings,” Rankin said. “They were running into walls in terms of keeping up with their siblings … It really touched me.”
Rankin on Feb. 9 spoke about the measure to the House Committee on Human Services and Housing, alongside two other advocates from Oregon Foster Youth Connection. The committee will vote on the measure on Feb. 16. — the first of many tests if the bill is to become law.
Rosen said even if the bill becomes Oregon law, the youth advocates’ work won’t be done. They will also have to make sure it is enforced properly, he said.
“Legislation is important, but I think what young people need to do is really work to hold the systems accountable,” he said. “I don’t see [legislation] as the end. I see it as the beginning.”
Jonathan Polakoff is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Business Journal, Easy Reader, Argonaut and other publications.