The first time he arrived on her doorstep, the boy had a fever and a runny nose. Tears lined his blue eyes.
Just 15 months old, he already had lived in more than half a dozen foster homes and was distressed. He repeatedly reached out to be held by new foster mom, Deborah Marlet, but then would cry and want down because she was still a stranger.
Over time, the hugs got longer and more frequent, the bond deeper. Marlet was smitten with the little redheaded boy and readily agreed to begin adoption proceedings when asked by his case manager last summer.
Now 3 years old, the boy has spent more than half of his short life on the idyllic Pasco farm that Marlet shares with her daughter and rescued horses, donkeys, goats, pigs, ducks and a rooster.
“When I say, ‘I’m coming back,’ he knows I’m coming back,” Marlet said.
But before the adoption was final, foster care agencies abruptly changed gears and now want a judge to place him with a new foster mom, who in February began caring for two of the boy’s half-siblings. She wants to adopt all three children. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming the boy nor his siblings.
The case has sparked outrage among some foster care experts who say that removing the boy from the only family he has bonded with would be traumatizing. It also has led to claims that foster care agencies and the Sixth Circuit Guardian ad Litem — an agency established by state law to advocate for children while in foster care — are ignoring his best interests to favor “one of their own.”
Nichole Perez, the foster mom caring for the boy’s two siblings, volunteered as a guardian ad litem in Hillsborough County for more than two years. And her sister-in-law, Emily Perez, is an adoption caseworker who previously worked alongside the boy’s adoption case worker, according to Connie Going, a national foster care expert based in St. Petersburg who has agreed to testify as an expert witness for Marlet.
Going, who has worked in foster care for three decades, is outraged that the boy’s well-being could be harmed. A contested adoption case where one party has connections to the foster care system raises concerns, Going said.
“You have to be above scrutiny when you’re looking at adopting from within the system,” she said. “These are our kids lives; you don’t get to play God.”
State law mandates that siblings should be kept together as much as possible. But that law normally applies in cases when several children are removed from the same home.
In this case, the boy’s half-siblings, who are several years older, were in foster care before he was born. Also, there are several other siblings either living with relatives or other foster parents.
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A judge ultimately will decide where the boy will live, but that decision may be swayed by the recommendation of a committee of staffers from child welfare agencies and, perhaps, the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Nichole Perez declined to address a question about her connection to the child welfare system, saying she could not talk about the case because of state laws mandating confidentiality.
“I have proudly served as Guardian ad Litem in Hillsborough County for two and a half years and now proudly serve as a foster parent, and that is my only comment,” she said.
Chris Card, the chief of community-based care for Eckerd Connects, the lead foster care agency for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, also cited confidentiality rules. But he acknowledged that the committee faces a gut-wrenching decision. Research supports keeping siblings together, he said, but studies also show that frequent placements can traumatize a child.
Siblings who are separated when they are young sometimes question that decision later in life, he added.
“This is a complicated case, no question about it,” he said. “These are tough, tough decisions that nobody wants to make lightly.”
Card said he was aware that questions had been asked about Nichole Perez’s connection to the foster care system and said that the court would be aware, too. Agencies sometimes have to amend recommendations about adoption as situations change, he said.
“We have to take circumstances as they are, not as they existed six months or a year ago,” he said.
Frances Allegra, an attorney and partner with Miami law firm Cole, Scott and Kissane, agreed to represent Marlet when her case seemed like a straightforward adoption. It was designated as one of the pro bono cases the firm does each year.
She has stayed on the case, providing her services for free, even though it has taken hundreds of hours work, she said.
For six months, Marlet was named in court hearings as the potential adoptive parent, Allegra said. Her client has done everything possible to provide a loving home, she said, and was the one who pushed for the boy to have regular visits with his siblings.
Her biggest concern is that the recommendation of Aleacia Guy, the volunteer guardian ad litem assigned to the case who made regular visits to Marlet’s home, is being overlooked. In February, Guy advocated for the boy to stay with Marlet before an ad hoc committee that is set up for cases where an adoption would separate siblings, according to Allegra.
Since then, Guy has not been notified of court hearings, Allegra said, and she has filed a motion in court for the judge to hear Guy’s testimony.
Mariela Ollsen, the circuit director for the Guardian ad Litem program in Pinellas and Pasco counties, said she could not respond to any specifics about the case because of confidentiality laws.
“What we do is look at each case and each child to determine what is in the best interest of that child,” she said. “Based on that, we make a recommendation to the court.”
There is more at stake than which foster mom gets to keep the boy, according to Mimi Graham, a professor at Florida State University who was approached by Allegra to testify on the case.
Graham, who specializes in attachment and trauma in early childhood and who runs the school’s Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy, said children in their first few years develop a hard-wired relationship with their main caregiver. Studies have shown that severing that relationship at a young age can lead to relationship disorders and attachment issues that will stay with them the rest of their lives.
Graham said she will testify that the boy could be further traumatized if he is moved from the only caregiver he can remember.
“The person who cared for him for two years of his life is his emotional base and secure attachment figure,” she said. “Why in the world would you jeopardize that?”
For Marlet, the past few months have been excruciating as she waits to hear whether she will be able to keep the boy whom she says is now part of her heart.
Her 17-year-old daughter reads and does coloring with the boy, who dotes on her and has nicknamed her “Sissy.” He loves playing on a drum set that Marlet bought him and also “plays” drums at church. Before the pandemic, Marlet’s parents would visit every other day.
“I would feel like a piece of my family is missing, but I would be mostly devastated for (the boy),” she said on the thought of losing him. “I pray and have hopes in the end they will do the right thing and see my point of view. I don’t want (him) to lose anybody else; he’s lost enough people.”