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If children must enter foster care while their parents sort out mental health crises, violent relationships or addiction, the trauma of abuse and neglect, and the pain of separation can be long-lasting. But there’s one clear way to minimize the impact: keeping siblings together.

Public officials in a high-desert bedroom community north of downtown Los Angeles have committed to building housing that facilitates those critical family ties. Within a year, according to local and county officials, the city of Palmdale will be the first site in California to begin construction of a development built specifically for sibling groups in foster care.

The aim of these temporary homes and the staff who will oversee them, said Mike Miller, director of neighborhood services for the city of Palmdale, is to get the children safely back to their families once problems at home have been sorted out.

“They’re helping the children, but they’re also working with the parents because ultimately I think our wish for all foster kids and parents is that this family stays together,” he said. “These aren’t kids just getting thrown into a home somewhere,” he added. “This is also about valuing the family, and keeping the kids together. That’s transformational.”

The $19 million project will include a dozen three-bedroom townhomes. Up to six siblings will live in each home, together with a specially trained professional caregiver. The housing project will also include two units for young adults transitioning out of foster care, and offices for case managers and support staff.

Last week, in accordance with its goal of creating “quality affordable housing” for “low, very low and extremely low-income” residents, the Palmdale City Council and Housing Authority authorized a $1.2 million “acquisition and pre-development” loan for the project. The Los Angeles County Development Authority has also committed to a $500,000 loan, with the remaining costs covered by private financing, according to a city staff report.

The project, which will be constructed on the north side of McAdam Park on 30th St. East in Palmdale, is being developed by SOS Children’s Villages. The more than 70-year-old agency describes its aim as building families for orphaned, abandoned and other vulnerable children in 135 countries, including the United States.

SOS Children’s Villages is now a global organization, but it began humbly, its first “village” built in 1949 in Imst, Austria to house children left behind during World War II. The group now operates more than 550 “villages” serving approximately 13 million children, youth and families.

 Palmdale will be the first location of its type to open in California, but the developer of the site runs three similar housing projects in Illinois, and one in Florida.

“I’m a proud supporter and funder of the SOS Children’s Villages project in Palmdale,” L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in an email to The Imprint, adding that she met with the project’s leadership at length. “I’m impressed by their long-standing commitment to family reunification efforts, and to providing compassionate care to foster youth and those at risk of entering the system.”

Keeping Siblings Together

The hazards of failing to keep siblings in foster care are widely acknowledged, and “placing siblings in the same home should always be the priority,” states a 2019 federal Children’s Bureau bulletin.

Although the relationships can be expansive in definition — biological siblings, step siblings, foster siblings, or other close relatives or nonrelatives with whom they have lived, even siblings they’ve never met — maintaining an attachment is essential to the children’s well-being.

“For some siblings in care,” the bulletin says, “their separation or infrequent visiting can cause those relationships to wither, sometimes to the point of permanent estrangement.”

When foster children stay close to their siblings, they are more likely to remain in stable homes, and more likely to “achieve permanency” through family reunification, adoption or legal guardianship. The pairing of siblings helps them adapt to new living situations, whatever they may be, in part because they are less worried about where their other family members are and how they are doing.

Researchers have also found that contact with brothers and sisters soothes the trauma of childhood abuse and neglect, as well as the traumatic experience of being separated from parents and the only home a child has ever known. Children who have positive relationships with siblings are less likely to suffer behavioral problems, such as anxiety and depression.

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For siblings who can’t be housed together, child welfare experts encourage close placement, frequent visits and ongoing contact through letters, email, social media, cards and phone calls.

Numerous federal laws aim to promote sibling connections.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 was the first federal law stressing the importance of sibling relationships in the foster care system. It requires that any child welfare agency relying on federal funding to seek placements that keep siblings in the same home or, if that’s not possible, provide ongoing contact and visits.

In 2014, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act required that the parents of siblings be included as people to be notified when a child needs placement, as a means to keep children within extended kin networks.

Four years later, the Family First Prevention Services Act passed, allowing states to waive the number of children who can be placed in a single foster home, as a way to better accommodate sibling groups.

Changing the Profile of Antelope Valley

The region known as the Antelope Valley — which includes the cities of Palmdale and Lancaster — has some of the highest poverty and child maltreatment rates in Los Angeles County. Three horrific and highly publicized child deaths in the area over a six-year period put the child welfare agency’s delayed response to household warning signs under a harsh spotlight. The area has also experienced a relatively high level of turnover among social workers and CPS line staff.

Referring to the torture and killing of 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez in 2013 — crimes committed by his mother and her boyfriend — Miller said the tragedy also spurred action.

“It really heightened our community to tell us that we need to do more,” he said. “And the community’s really stuck to that promise of trying to do more for the kids. So this SOS project is just right on that path of commitment that came as a result of that tragedy.”

Miller said the sibling housing project will take some time to complete, given the complexity of the project’s funders, agencies involved and unique requirements. But he expects construction will begin within a year.

“These projects really do take time but this one just strikes to the heart and it has such momentum and support,” Miller said. “What we’re hoping is that this is a model that other government entities here in California will use to do the exact same thing up and down the state.”

Tim McCormick, CEO of the SOS Children’s Villages Illinois, got esoteric in describing the project. He said it’s meaningful that the site will be located in the high desert, and the architecture will be environmentally friendly and reflect the region’s natural colors and hues.

“There’s really an intrinsic beauty of life out there,” McCormick said. “It’s kind of a hidden gem.”

McCormick also noted that the sibling groups who will live at the site more than likely will have come from impoverished households. But once built, their temporary home will serve as a resource center for these low-income children and families. 

It will also nourish cultural life, with an outdoor theater for the arts, music and spoken word — “almost like a Greek auditorium,” McCormick described. “So that’s what we hope to do there, is to bring in resources that are outside Palmdale and inside Palmdale, to blend them together and create and strengthen a narrative of a child’s life and a family’s history.”

This article was originally published on The Imprint.