A Pasco foster mom appears to have lost her fight to adopt a 3-year-old boy who has lived with her for most of his short life.
Deborah Marlet took in the boy when he was 15 months old after he had been bounced between seven foster homes. He thrived under her care, experts said, and she readily agreed to adopt him when asked by the boy’s case manager.
But foster care agencies reversed course in February and recommended the boy be placed with Nichole Perez, a Hillsborough foster mom who is caring for two of the boy’s half-siblings.
At a closed hearing Wednesday, Circuit Judge James Stearns agreed and ordered the boy to be placed with Perez even after it emerged in court that she lost her job as a paralegal at Quarles & Brady law firm on May 8.
Perez said during the hearing that she was starting a law firm but was not receiving a paycheck. Florida adoption regulations state that families “must have legal and verifiable income and resources to ensure financial stability and security.”
It is unclear if Perez is a single mom. She repeatedly answered “no comment” to questions from a reporter late Wednesday. Pasco County property records list her as the sole owner of a home in Land O’ Lakes. She plans to adopt all three children.
Under the ruling, the boy will be taken from Marlet’s home Friday. She will not be permitted further contact.
Connie Going, a national foster care expert based in St. Petersburg, said the 45-year-old foster mom was heartbroken for the little boy she has raised the past 20 months and fears he will be traumatized when he is taken away from the only adult he has bonded with.
Going, who has worked in child welfare for 30 years, said the turmoil the boy faces is the result of lead foster care agency Eckerd Connects’ failure to place the boy with his half-siblings when he first entered foster care. Both several years older, the siblings were already in foster care. The Tampa Bay Times is not naming them.
“I’m sad,” said Connie Going. “I’m angry and very disappointed in a system that has two years to move a child into a placement with his siblings and does not do it and then acts all righteous to do it now, when he’s attached and bonded where he is.”
Going has also questioned whether foster care agencies and the Sixth Circuit Guardian ad Litem — an agency established by state law to advocate for children while in foster care — favored Perez because of her child welfare connections. Before she started fostering in February, Perez volunteered for the Guardian ad Litem program in Hillsborough County for more than two years.
Going was one of three experts who volunteered to testify in favor of the boy staying with Marlet. The judge declined to hear their testimony.
Silvia Alvarez McBride, a licensed mental health counselor and expert on child attachment, also volunteered. She said it was clear that the boy’s frequent moves to different foster families had affected him, but he developed a deep attachment to Marlet, a relationship she described as a “miracle.”
Research suggests that children who do not bond with their main caregiver are at a higher risk for developmental regression, problems sleeping and eating, depression and angry outbursts, McBride said. The issues can spill over into their teenage and adult life with issues like delinquency and drug use.
“This has been the most significant and stable relationship he’s had in his life,” she said. “There is no guarantee when he moves he will be able to do the same.”
Stearns did agree to hear from Aleacia Guy, the Guardian ad Litem volunteer assigned to visit with the boy and observe his interactions with Marlet. She went against the recommendation of her own agency and told Stearns it would be best for the boy to stay with Marlet.
A request by the Times to talk with Stearns was declined.
“Judges don’t comment on their decisions as doing so is in violation of the judicial canon on ethics,” said Stephen Thompson, court spokesman for the Sixth Judicial Circuit.
Chris Card, chief of community-based care for Eckerd Connects, declined to answer why the boy was being placed with a foster mom who is unemployed. He said he cannot comment on a specific case.
Sibling relationships are considered critical for foster children as they can endure well into adult life. State law mandates that siblings be kept together as much as possible. But that law normally applies in cases when several children are removed from the same home.
The boy had been having visits with his half-siblings, according to Marlet’s attorney, Frances Allegra.