Siblings in foster care should be kept together, Florida says - except when it argues the opposite

Attorneys and adoptive parents say Florida’s child welfare system is rife with inconsistency over crucial placement decisions. The result can be heartbreak for parents and children.
A former foster girl, center, walks with her adoptive parents in North Carolina. The couple says they have spent $200,000 fighting the Florida foster care system, which is recommending that her 2-year-old brother be adopted by a different family.
A former foster girl, center, walks with her adoptive parents in North Carolina. The couple says they have spent $200,000 fighting the Florida foster care system, which is recommending that her 2-year-old brother be adopted by a different family. [ Community Law LLC ]
Published Aug. 28, 2020|Updated Aug. 29, 2020

TAMPA — Longing to be someone’s “mom” and “dad,” the North Carolina couple spent four years on an adoption waiting list.

Their chance came in November 2015 when a phone call sent them on a 13-hour drive to the neonatal intensive care unit at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. The 1-day-old girl was born drug-dependent, but she was theirs.

Smart and loving, the child was everything they had wished for. They didn’t want her to be an only child, so they applied to adopt again.

They were thrilled in January 2018 when their attorney told them that their daughter, then 2, had an 8-month-old brother in foster care. The boy had the same biological parents, and the couple said yes when asked by child welfare workers if they wanted to adopt the boy.

Over the next four months, the couple said they spent almost $11,000 starting a second adoption and excitedly told their daughter about her new family. But in May 2018, child welfare agencies abruptly switched gears, saying it would be too traumatic to remove the boy, then a year old, from foster parents in Sarasota who had cared for him since birth and also want to adopt him.

The disputed adoption comes less than two months after child welfare agencies and Florida Department of Children and Families attorneys argued the opposite in court on a different case. They convinced a Pasco County judge in June to remove a 3-year-old boy from the foster family he had been with about 18 months — and who wanted to adopt him — so he could be adopted along with two of his half-siblings.

In both cases, the family chosen to adopt the child included parents who were volunteers for the Guardian ad Litem agency.

Related: She was his foster mom most of his life. Now Pasco woman faces losing 3-year-old boy she wants to adopt.

The decision led the North Carolina couple in June to sue the state agency and the Safe Children Coalition, the lead foster care agency in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties, on behalf of their daughter. The state also is contesting a separate lawsuit filed by the couple to guarantee their daughter the right to visit with her brother.

The couple estimates they have spent about $200,000 in legal fees. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming them because their adoption was kept confidential to protect their identity from their daughter’s biological parents.

“It’s ripped us to pieces,” said the girl’s mother. “She doesn’t understand why (her brother) is not here or why she can’t talk to him.”

Child welfare agencies say that each foster case is different and must be treated on its merits. But adoption attorneys and others who work on behalf of biological and adoptive parents say a lack of consistency frequently leads to questionable decisions about where to place children.

Veteran Tampa adoption attorney Jeanne Tate said agencies routinely make recommendations for placements that seem to run counter to child welfare policies. The result can be that children stay longer in foster care. And it can cause more heartache and expense for foster parents who want to adopt, she said

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“When there can’t be predictable outcomes, that’s bad for kids,” Tate said. “It invites litigation, it invites delay, it invites uncertainty. We know the state doesn’t make a good parent. Leaving these children in long-term foster care causes psychological, emotional and physical harm to children.”

Sarah Campbell, an adoption attorney in Indian River, shares those concerns. As a former attorney for the Department of Children and Families, she said foster care agencies and the state have motivations beyond the best interests of the child, citing performance metrics such as how quickly they get children in and out of foster care, known as permanency.

“They pick and choose which families they want to support without any real rhyme or reason,” Campbell said. “I believe they try to accomplish what they need to in order to improve their numbers for permanency statewide.”

Campbell represented Port St. Lucie foster mom Katie Harris after the state in March opposed her adoption of Riley, the middle child of three sisters in foster care.

Riley had been with Harris for two years — and Harris had begun paperwork for adoption — when the Department of Children and Families filed a motion asking a judge to move the 3-year-old girl to live with her baby sister.

Harris said child welfare agencies pressured her to adopt both siblings, and the motion to move Riley felt like retaliation. It was made over the recommendation of Riley’s therapist, who said it would traumatize the child, she said. There was no effort by the state or the Guardian ad Litem agency for the three sisters to be adopted together, Campbell said.

Harris decided to fight the case, and child welfare agencies relented only after it became clear that senior officials would have to be deposed, Harris said. She officially became Riley’s mom July 9.

“After we spent $13,000 fighting for our daughter, they just changed their minds,” she said. “They filed so many things against us, it felt like they just tried to make us run out of money.”

Port St. Lucie resident Katie Harris and her daughter Riley, 3.
Port St. Lucie resident Katie Harris and her daughter Riley, 3. [ Katie Harris ]

The Department of Children and Families and the Guardian ad Litem agency do not comment on individual cases, making it tough for those on the outside to understand their decisions.

Department of Children and Families spokeswoman DaMonica Smith said the welfare of the children is the sole motivation of her agency and the nonprofits that serve as lead foster agencies across the state. Any final decision on placement is made by a judge, based on recommendations from several parties, she said, including biological parents, Guardians ad Litem and the state.

“In every case, we prioritize the best interest of the child involved, which as you can imagine, is dependent on the circumstances and never cut and dry,” she said in an email.

Alan Abramowitz, executive director of the Florida Guardian ad Litem office, disputed that his agency, which is tasked by the state to represent foster children’s interests, takes contrary positions.

“We firmly believe children in the dependency system have already been traumatized, and we want to avoid additional traumas,” he said in an email. “As you might imagine, not all siblings have functioning relationships, and some don’t know one another at all.”

Tampa resident Chris Fellerhoff has seen firsthand how the state and child welfare agencies operate. He is father to three adopted children and has been a foster dad to about 20 kids over the past six years.

He and his wife had to give up on their wish to adopt an 8-month-old child they had raised since he was born after child welfare workers decided they wanted to place the boy with his aunt. At one point, the case manager wanted to remove the child with one day’s notice and place him with a relative. Fellerhoff said that he understands the importance of family, but removing a child without at least a gradual transition from their caregivers would have harmed the child.

He had to appeal to senior staff at the agencies before they agreed to a longer transition period and, later, made a complaint to the inspector general of the Department of Children and Families.

“They tend to handle it in abrupt ways that are contrary to what your training tells you,” Fellerhoff said. “You have to be very motivated and persistent to remind them of that.”

Foster care agencies strive to place siblings together, but a shortage of foster beds makes that a struggle. Across the state, about 35 percent of siblings taken into foster care end up in different homes, state data shows. The odds of sibling groups of three or more staying together are even worse.

Children born to parents whose older children are in foster care adds more complexity, sometimes resulting in heart-wrenching decisions over whether to unsettle children who have bonded with foster parents so they can be placed with a sibling they have never met.

That was the case with Charles and Maria Snider, the Sarasota couple who wants to adopt the same boy as the North Carolina couple. He was placed with them when he was 3 days old and is living the life of any well-adjusted 3-year-old, said their attorney, Laura Beth Faragasso.

The couple says they would welcome the boy getting to know his sister.

“We’ve always been open to the sibling relationship,” said Charles Snider. “But we’re opposed to him being removed from the only home he’s ever known.”

As with the disputed adoption case in Pasco County, child welfare agencies advocated in favor of the family with a connection to the child welfare system. Maria Snider volunteers as a Guardian ad Litem.

Abramowitz, the agency’s executive director, said it does not prohibit volunteers from being foster parents and has strict policies governing conflicts of interest to ensure placement decisions are made independently.

Still, case managers erred in this case by waiting eight months to notify the North Carolina couple that their daughter had a new brother, said Robin Rosenberg, deputy director of Florida’s Children First, a statewide advocacy organization.

They also should have encouraged a relationship between both sets of caregivers and the two children, she said.

The case was handled by the Safe Children Coalition. Its chief executive director, Brena Slater, said she cannot comment on the case.

Florida’s child welfare law allows judges to consider multiple factors in making decisions about adoptions and placement, Rosenberg said. The problem, she said, is that the court doesn’t always get accurate information with which to make the best decision.

“The law is fine; implementation is the problem,” said Rosenberg. “When there’s attention called to it, people step up their game and follow the law. Then it seems to trickle away.”

The North Carolina couple plans to keep fighting to adopt their daughter’s brother or at least to win the right for her to visit with him regularly.

But they face a tough legal battle because Florida law does not recognize the rights of siblings when it comes to visitation. The Department of Children and Families has filed motions to dismiss both of their lawsuits.

They were amazed at the family resemblance when the brother and sister met for the only time in September 2018 at a playground inside a mall. The visit lasted about 90 minutes.

“Our daughter treated him as a little brother and showed him around all of the things to play on,” said the girl’s mother. “They hugged and laughed and had a wonderful time together.”

The couple also hopes they can recoup some of their legal expenses. They dispute the Sniders’ account of being cooperative about sibling visits and say their requests for their daughter to spend time with her brother have been ignored.

Octavia Brown, a Tampa attorney representing them, said its clear that child welfare agencies violated state law by failing to notify her clients about the birth of a sibling.

Investigators working for the Department of Children and Families who removed the boy knew about his older sister, because she was listed in the paperwork they filed in court, she wrote in a lawsuit filed in Leon County. The suit also states that case managers and other staffers at the Safe Children Coalition failed in their duty to encourage the development of a sibling relationship.

“We are trying every single avenue to get someone to listen to them and recognize that DCF has violated basic laws,” Brown said.