“If you can't be with your parents because the court so deems, you should at the minimum be with your siblings,” said Richard Malaby, (R)-Hancock who sponsored the bill.
The state representative said the previous standard didn't work because "in the best interest of the child" has two meanings for children in crisis.
“There are two different best interest,” Malaby said. “The immediate best interest when a child is removed from a family is to get them into a safe, loving environment. But the long-term best interest is to place siblings together.”
The new law will require DHHS and the courts to place brothers and sisters together when taken into foster care.
“The destruction of that sibling bond is so significant,” said Newell Augur, a child protection attorney. “You're talking about children who have already been separated from their parents because their parents can't take care of them and now we're doing the added damage to this child of separating them permanently from their siblings.
The University of Maine School of Law reviewed all of Maine's child protection statutes on relative placements last year and pointed out there was no previous rules about siblings staying together.
“There actually wasn't an expressed provision in Maine law in respect to sibling placement,” said Dierdre Smith, a UMaine School of Law professor, who led the study that was presented to the Judiciary Committee earlier this year. “There was language about sibling contact and making sure that siblings continued to have contact with each other while they were in foster care, if they were not in the same placement, but nothing specifically about giving priority to keeping siblings together.”
The bill was passed by the legislature, then vetoed by the governor but had enough support to override the veto and become law this month.
“What we have now is a priority,” Malaby said. “First we'd like to place children with adult family relatives. The second and equal priority is to place siblings together.”