Massachusetts foster families say DCF often separates siblings, despite its own stated priorities

Nov 9, 2021

When the state of Massachusetts takes children away from their parents because of alleged neglect or abuse, they are supposed to try to keep siblings together.

But some foster parents and advocates say, in reality, social workers often fail to do so — and they’re looking for stronger legal oversight.

After-school snacktime at the Cheshire, Massachusetts, home of Missy and Dave Tarjick is bustling, to say the least. 

On a recent afternoon, Dave served a couple children grapes at the kitchen counter, while Missy tried to usher the rest to play outside. There was a friendly hum of chatter and laughing.

The Tarjicks have been taking in foster children for years. At the moment, six kids live here and they’re all treated as one family.

Three of them are biological siblings — they have the same mother — but it wasn’t easy to keep them together.

The oldest sibling, Davon, came to the Tarjicks in 2015 at the age of 4; he’s 11 now. Missy Tarjick, herself a social worker, said Davon’s mother was a teenager with substance abuse problems who lost her parental rights.

“Five or six months in, we just fell in love and we said, ‘You know, we would like to be considered as the pre-adoptive home for Davon,” she said. 

A few years later, the same mother gave birth to a boy named Jay and eventually the Tarjicks became his guardians.

“It was really a connection for Davon because he didn’t have biological family connections,” Missy Tarjick said. “Jay was the first bio family connection he’d had in several years.”

Then a girl, Nyla, was born to the same mother, and the Tarjicks became her guardians too. 

‘You can’t really describe already a bond that’s there’

Davon said he loves being with his siblings.

“It feels happy to have my brothers and sisters live with me,” he said, sitting at the dining table.

“It’s almost like you can’t really describe already a bond that’s there, almost instantaneously,” Missy Tarjick said. “There’s certain mannerisms that are the same. And I know if I’m seeing that, they are feeling it and seeing it too.”

The Tarjick family plays outside their home in the Berkshires.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPM

A few years after Jay and Nyla came, their mother had two more children. The Tarjicks, who have eight bedrooms, asked for permission to take all the kids. But Tarjick said the state Department of Children and Families, or DCF, started to balk at the number of kids in the house.

“The biological parents, their attorneys, both the children’s attorney, and then we had an attorney — all agreed that they should be placed with us,” Tarjick said.

But according to Tarjick and court documents, DCF instead sent the children to live with a couple in Maryland who are cousins of their biological mother. 

The Tarjicks have filed a legal motion to reverse that decision. Even if they lose, they hope to draw attention to the value of keeping siblings together. Clinical studies have shown that improves mental health and other outcomes. 

“It definitely helps to heal some of that trauma and loss that you’ve experienced,” Missy Tarjick said.

That’s why Tarjick — and a group she’s with called the Massachusetts Alliance for Families — is supporting a bill that would require DCF to keep siblings together when possible and make it easier for the courts to intervene when that doesn’t happen.

State Rep. Joan Meschino of Plymouth is the bill’s sponsor.

“Just by ensuring that the siblings are not separated simply because of administrative convenience,” Meschino said, “it’s really meant to minimize the number of separations that occur, but it acknowledges that sometimes that they do.”

‘Why wasn’t I the first phone call?’

As it stands now, social workers often don’t even look for siblings when a new child is taken from their parent, according to Kelly Lamb, vice president of the Massachusetts Alliance for Families. 

“We hear a lot of times that foster parents are not aware of those children until much later on,” Lamb said. “And they tend to get very upset, like, ‘Why wasn’t I the first phone call?’”

Two of Lamb’s children, who were adopted from foster care, are half siblings.

Lamb has another adopted child who lives apart from her biological siblings. The Lambs learned accidentally that her mother gave birth to a younger brother, but social workers sent that child to a foster family out of state rather than to live with the Lambs.

“We were never given an answer as to why,” Lamb said, “and that was really frustrating.” 

A DCF spokesperson declined to provide an interview and sent a statement instead, saying sibling connections are prioritized but that “(d)etermining what is in the best interest of children reflects the unique needs and circumstances of each child … Foster care and adoption cases often involve weighing multiple factors, including a child’s safety, well-being, and individual needs.”

In a 2020 report, the agency claimed that in more than three-quarters of cases that year, a minimum of two siblings were placed together in foster care.

To Andrew Cohen, that’s not good enough. He’s a lawyer with the Committee for Public Counsel Services, which represents parents and children in the foster care system.

“They have been complaining consistently that DCF has not been prioritizing sibling contacts and sibling placement,” Cohen said. “So this is a huge problem in our Massachusetts foster care system.”

The state does have a “Sibling Bill of Rights,” which says siblings should be kept together whenever possible, but it’s nonbinding.

“I think most social workers and supervisors do try very hard to place kids together,” Cohen said, “and kids do come into care very quickly. And so they’re making phone calls very quickly to foster homes just to see who has space. But the problem is they don’t have enough foster homes. They have not been aggressively recruiting.”

‘We live in a society that emphasizes our biological connections’

The Tarjicks are unusual in the amount of room they have to accommodate foster children. And they acknowledge their case is complicated, with competing priorities for the foster care system.

For one, Missy and Dave are white and the group of sibling children are Black. According to court documents, the out-of-state relatives with whom DCF placed the younger siblings, are also Black. 

Again, DCF declined to comment on its decision but said “(n)ational research shows children whose relatives are able to serve as their foster parents are more stable and successful in foster care.”

Many research and policy papers present complex views on same-race foster placement and the need to recruit more diverse foster parents.

The Tarjick family in Cheshire, Massachusetts.
Credit Karen Brown / NEPM

While Missy Tarjick said she supports placing children with similar ethnic and racial backgrounds in principle, it’s important to look at the whole picture.

“The only way that all five children could be together would be in our home,” she said. “There isn’t the option of having all five kids in an African American family. It’s not on the table.”

Vanesa Morales agreed there are trade-offs. She’s a Black foster mom who works for the Massachusetts Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

“I think they should seek out people who look more like [the foster children]. I truly believe that,” Morales said. “But at the same time, I don’t think that they should stop and only look for people of color.”

Morales also acknowledged there may be practical reasons to keep siblings apart, such as the size of a foster parent’s house. And in some cases, if siblings have already gotten close to separate families over time, it may be counterproductive to move them back together.

“Each case has a different dynamic, a different tone, a different situation,” she said. “But at the same time, siblings trump — they should try to keep the siblings together if they can.”

One exception, most agree, is when one sibling has been abusive to their sisters or brothers or exhibits dangerous behavior, a possibility has been brought up at public hearings in the past.

“I think that’s a cop out,” Cohen said. “That very rare exception can’t govern. It can’t be the rule.”

The sibling legislation is in committee. Similar bills have failed before. And this version would not necessarily help foster parents like the Tarjicks because, according to Meschino, it’s designed for siblings who have lived together, not for those who are biologically related but have never met.  

Lamb said that’s unfortunate.

“I mean, we live in a society that emphasizes our biological connections, and many kids who are adopted feel different because they have lost that genetic identity,” Lamb said. “The siblings represent that genetic identity, and they did nothing … to deserve the separation from each other.”

Still, Lamb said she considers the legislation a good start since it will give judges more power to override DCF’s decisions to separate siblings.

The Tarjicks are still waiting for a judge to hear their appeal on the two siblings sent out of state.

Meanwhile, they try to have weekly FaceTime calls among the children. But they know the longer the siblings live apart, the less they will feel like brothers and sisters.