When it Comes to Siblings, It’s all Relative

Like most sisters, 2-year old Davina and her 7-year old sister Marla (not their real names), fight over whose turn it is to play on the iPad. “We go through phases with sharing,” explains Emily Kenney, their foster mom for the past year and a half. In that time, Emily has seen how important routine is to the girls, even if that means limited screen time for both of them.

On this particular day, the girls have just finished playing in the backyard and are hungry for a snack – and mom’s attention. They give long-winded, energetic updates about school and daycare, inquire about what’s for dinner, and try on princess slippers. It’s clear they enjoy being part of this family. They even have a newborn baby brother, six-month-old Will, the biological child of Emily and her husband Patrick.

Emily & Will
Emily and Will

Two girls and a boy

The husband and wife are a team now, but Emily decided to become a foster parent when she was still single. “I actually had to get a babysitter for my first date with Patrick because I had just gotten my first placement,” she says. When she and Patrick got married a couple years ago, they knew they would also want biological children. The girls refer to Will as their “brother,” yet they seem to understand this is their family for now but not forever.

“Our hope and our goal in all of this is reunification for Davina and Marla,” says Emily. “People sometimes say it’s heroic of foster parents to be able to watch the kids go back home; but it’s not heroic, it’s what needs to happen as long as the kids are safe and loved there.” Hopefully that day will come for Davina and Marla in the next few months, as Family Time (formerly called Family Visitations) with their mom have been going well.

The Foster Parent Balancing Act

First individually and now with her husband Patrick, Emily Kenney has been a foster mom for four years. “We’ve had all types of placements: emergencies, siblings, two unrelated kids, whatever the need has been,” Emily says. “I’m driven by passion for foster parenting, so sometimes Patrick has to remind me of our limits.”

For example, she and her husband both work full-time, so they aren’t good candidates for kids who need around-the-clock home care. Plus, they have a newborn, for whom they don’t want to be spread too thin. Emily says they would also be interested in taking care of teens, but quickly adds: “Eventually, when we’re older and Will’s older.” In the meantime, Emily’s advice is to always remember, “This is not easy, but it is rewarding.”

Ready for anything

Davina was a baby when she came to live with the family and Marla was five years old and has more to work through. Right now, Emily is teaching Marla about getting along with her peers and how to navigate her relationship with one particular kid at school. Although they are aware of the girls’ backgrounds prior to going into out-of-home care, Emily says there is often more to uncover. “A lot of foster parenting is done on the fly and sometimes big issues related to trauma come up. We just have to be ready to address it.” She adds that while she tries not to pathologize everything the girls do, it does help to be able to identify when a behavior isn’t normal for them.

It helps that Emily went to school for social work. It was also during her social work training that Emily first became an advocate for birth families. “I identify with the parents’ needs because a year or 15 months isn’t a very long time for them to conquer all their challenges,” she says. “This way, we can lay a foundation for kids as well as their parents, which feels really good.”




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