PO group strengthens bond of separated siblings

Siblings belong together and are stronger for it, but when that is threatened by safety concerns or instability in a household, foster care can be the answer until a family can be made whole again.

An unintended consequence of that system has led to countless brothers and sisters being separated and a loss at real chances to grow up as true siblings or even kids.

Mihelia Thomas, 16, is one of those kids, despite saying she has a pretty big family that should be able to take her in. Instead, she has been a foster kid for almost four years, and still with no home to truly call her own. She thinks of her eventual high school graduation is more of an excuse to keep her in the system than a celebration.

“It’s tough being a teenager especially, ‘cause usually, people only want babies or little kids” to adopt or foster, she said. “It’s hard then finding a place for yourself in foster care.”

Even tougher is watching her sister, not named per legal restrictions, grow up in a separate household—a sister that Thomas had to grow up faster to become a primary caregiver too.

“Honestly, I was mad at my sister for it,” she said. “My mom didn’t really take care of us. She had mental disorders. I was even like, ‘Damn, you took my childhood away from me.’”

It’s a tragedy that leaders from a nonprofit based out of Port Orchard since 2009 are all too familiar with. Sibling Strong began as just an annual weeklong summer camp, and since 2018 has worked to expand into year-round events and gatherings for kids ages 8-18 and separated through foster care, adoption or kinship care.

Together, the organization made up of past and present foster parents, campers turned counselors and even a sister-parent have worked to alleviate the pressures of sibling separation by orchestrating brief meetings between siblings.

“We figured that if we could get the money together, we could give these kids an experience all year round,” said Bob Partlow, a co-founder of the group. “They want to stay in touch with their siblings. I mean, they wouldn’t be going to camp or wouldn’t be part of this if they hadn’t had a tough start to life already.”

Partlow describes the events Sibling Strong puts together, such as one of their most recent meetups for laser tag and food for over a dozen kids in Gig Harbor, as generators of lost core memories and repairing relationships broken by poor circumstances.

These are “lots of things designed to create good memories for kids that often only have bad memories dealing with each other,” Partlow said.

Good memories were often scarce for siblings like Katie Buxton, who found herself the victim of child abuse before running away to enter foster care at age 14. She eventually aged out of the system.

“Between ages 9-14, I probably had like thirty different instances of reporting abuse that didn’t get follow-up on or was in really horrible ways. When I was 14, I took my little sister -there’s five of us total- and we ran away,” Buxton said.

She talked of the years in foster care for her and her siblings as, while different, all marked with themes of neglect and abuse. She even said she found out recently her little sister had been subject to sexual abuse at one of her stays.

The whole experience turned Buxton into more of a parental figure to her siblings and eventually into a fight to gain custody for that very purpose. Two of the siblings were eventually formally adopted by the now 26-year-old Buxton. “They’re decked out at home. They’re solid, safe, secure. We call it a sister-parent, or even a ‘mister.’”

Buxton now gets to see as a volunteer the effects Sibling Strong events have on kids like Thomas, who with a little help from volunteers and a little therapy has since come to understand her sister’s situation more clearly. It is no longer anger shared with her sister, but instead plenty of smiles.

“After moving past that, I realize that it’s not her fault, and I feel like we have a pretty good relationship,” Thomas said.

TJ Palasis, also 16, talked about how the Sibling Strong events have become an important part of he and his sibling’s lives.

“We just don’t get to see each other a lot,” Palasis said, “and just to build memories together here and with other people like us, it feels nice.”

The effects of the camp and other gatherings have been influential enough that former campers now assist in the Sibling Strong program. Reannon Rogers-Workman was separated from some of her siblings through adoption, and her journey of reuniting with family at camp led her to become a counselor.

“I remember how appreciative I was to be able to have that experience with my siblings, and I just wanted to be able to give that to some other kids. I knew firsthand how important it was,” Rogers-Workman said.

She spoke on the emotional aspect of a week at camp. Mondays spent hugging each other and catching up on lost time were full of joy, while Thursdays and Fridays turned to sad tears and fear of missing each other.

“Knowing it was coming to an end was pretty sad, but knowing that we’d get to come back next year was always good. It’s more about all the smiles on the kids’ faces as they forget about what’s been going on in their normal lives and just take their moments with their siblings,” Rogers-Workman said.