*This is my actual testimony from the hearing before the judiciary committee debating LB 411. There were several child advocacy organizations that supported this bill (either in person or by letter) and the only person that opposed it was a representative from Health and Human Services. Their primary concern seemed to be that it might cost too much money to allow siblings to have a voice in what happens to their brothers and sisters. The Legislative Fiscal Office did not anticipate any increased costs when they evaluated the bill, but DHHS thinks they would have to spend money in court to defend placement decisions where siblings have been separated without legal cause and they anticipate that kids might be in state care longer if siblings intervene. They prefer the current system where they can separate siblings (which means they are not following our current law about sibling placement priority unless there are safety concerns) and the siblings have no legal right to question it. We believe if they were making placement decisions in accordance with the law in the first place, there would be little need to ever defend these decisions in court, so little cost would be involved and timelines wouldn’t be extended. I am explaining these issues as I understand them, but you are welcome to do the research for yourself.*
I’m Maralee Bradley and my husband and I have adopted three kids from the foster care system in Nebraska. All of these children have been separated from siblings who entered foster care after our kids were adopted. The first time this happened to our family, we were grieved, but we didn’t fight it because we were told we couldn’t. But now, six years and two additional siblings separations later, we have come to see the systemic nature of this problem and the longterm impact it has on our children and we can’t be silent. We are not advocating for our own desire to have more kids placed in our home, but want you to know the loss DHHS is causing my children and many others by ignoring or denying their right to grow up with their siblings. We are asking for your help to prevent this for other kids in state care.
Our state’s current statute does an excellent job of prioritizing sibling placements, but when we were put in a position to question a DHHS decision that did not line up with that statute, we were told by DHHS employees that the statute was meant to keep siblings together who already knew each other and didn’t apply to our children. This thinking doesn’t reflect the perspectives of adoptees who desire and value sibling relationships and grieve when those can’t be preserved. Although this last July DHHS did notify us of a sibling’s birth, it did not have to notify the judge that we were willing to take placement and explain why they were not following our state statute. We were also told that while we were a safe and suitable placement option, they were not willing to place this child with us and if we didn’t like it, we could hire a lawyer and take them to court. They said this with the full knowledge that according to our current law, our children have no legal standing to ask for a relationship with their siblings and cannot have any voice in court. Practically speaking, if DHHS does not follow our current statute, there is no ability for these children to ask for accountability or for their sibling rights to be acknowledged. This has to change.
We are asking you to use this bill to clarify that sibling relationships matter lifelong, even for siblings who have yet to be given the gift of developing that relationship. This bill would have given my children the right to be heard in court if DHHS didn’t honor their sibling rights and would provide some level of accountability. I wish the clarifications to our current statute were not necessary, but our experiences over the last 8 years and our conversations with many other foster and adoptive families who have experienced a similar grief tells us this absolutely is necessary. We need to be sure we’re providing clear and specific guidelines about our priorities in placement decisions so that we can ensure the rights of these siblings are supported and not just left to individual caseworkers to determine. My hope is that by having these accountability measures in place, those responsible for placement decisions will honor sibling relationships and we won’t need to worry about if our children have a voice in court. We want DHHS to make placement decisions that are consistent with our state law and affirm the importance of siblings from the start so moves and court questions aren’t ever necessary.
From July to November of this past year, we were in regular contact with the department of children and family services on all levels, advocating for our daughter’s right to grow up with a baby brother who entered foster care. Our hope and expectation was that once someone was made aware of our state statute regarding the priority of sibling placements, they would be willing to look into our situation. What we were surprised to find was a continual disregard for sibling rights and a defense of their ability to make whatever placement decisions they wanted without outside interference. And the more foster and adoptive parents I talked to, the more I became aware how often this happens and how little any of us can do to protect our kids. Without the accountability provided by the clarifications in LB411, I can only imagine that we will continue to see biological siblings who will grow up only knowing each other through occasional arranged sibling visits, and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to have adults involved who are willing to make those visits happen.
In a meeting with two DHHS employees about the sibling separation inflicted on our daughter we were told to be thankful that DHHS had now connected us with a relative who would be raising this child. They painted a very idyllic picture of what kind of relationship these siblings could have, while being raised in two different homes. We explained to them that they could not promise us that outcome, all they could promise us was that our daughter and her brother would not be able to grow up as brother and sister. A government system that separated our daughter from her biological family was causing that pain to her again. We are hopeful that with the clarifications in LB411, that pain will not be so callously inflicted on more children in the state’s care.
*If you agree that DHHS needs to follow our current state statute and that siblings should be given a voice in the state of Nebraska, it would mean so much to kids like mine if you would share this piece AND email your state senator with a link to this piece and a sentence expressing your support. To find your state senator and their contact info, follow this link. LB411 has made it out of committee, but time is running out for it to be debated and voted on during this legislative session. We need to press our state senators to make it a priority and passing this link along with your word of support could be the encouragement they need. If you have ANY questions about this legislation, please post them in the comments.*