2021 Florida Statutes (Including 2021B Session)
Placement of siblings; visitation; continuing contact.
Placement of siblings; visitation; continuing contact.
39.4024 Placement of siblings; visitation; continuing contact.—
(1) LEGISLATIVE FINDINGS.—
(a) The Legislature finds that sibling relationships can provide a significant source of continuity throughout a child’s life and are likely to be the longest relationships that most individuals experience. Further, the placement of siblings together can increase the likelihood of achieving permanency and is associated with a significantly higher rate of family reunification.
(b) The Legislature finds that it is beneficial for a child who is placed in out-of-home care to be able to continue existing relationships with his or her siblings, regardless of age, so that they may share their strengths and association in their everyday and often common experiences.
(c) The Legislature also finds that healthy connections with siblings can serve as a protective factor for children who have been placed in out-of-home care. The Legislature finds that child protective investigators and caseworkers should be aware of the variety of demographic and external situational factors that may present challenges to placement in order to identify such factors relevant to a particular group of siblings and ensure that these factors are not the sole reasons that siblings are not placed together.
(d) The Legislature also finds that it is the responsibility of all entities and adults involved in a child’s life, including, but not limited to, the department, community-based care lead agencies, parents, foster parents, guardians ad litem, next of kin, and other persons important to the child to seek opportunities to foster sibling relationships to promote continuity and help sustain family connections.
(e) While there is a presumption in law and policy that it is in the best interest of a child going into out-of-home care to be placed with any siblings, the Legislature finds that overall well-being of the child and family improves when the person or team responsible for placement decisions evaluates the child’s sibling and family bonds and prioritizes the bonds that are unique drivers of the child’s ability to maintain and develop healthy relationships. The person or team with an understanding of the need to balance all attachment bonds of a child and the potential need to prioritize existing and healthy sibling relationships differently than a potential or unhealthy sibling relationship over a healthy existing bond with a caregiver will result in more stable and healthier placements for all children in out-of-home care.
(2) DEFINITIONS.—As used in this section, the term:
(a) “Lead agency” means a community-based care lead agency under contract with the department to provide care to children in foster care under chapter 409.
(b) “Multidisciplinary team” has the same meaning as provided in s. 39.4022.
(c) “Sibling” means:
1. A child who shares a birth parent or legal parent with one or more other children; or
2. A child who has lived together in a family with one or more other children whom he or she identifies as siblings.
(3) PLACEMENT OF SIBLINGS IN OUT-OF-HOME CARE.—
(a) General provisions.—
1. The department or lead agency shall make reasonable efforts to place sibling groups that are removed from their home in the same foster, kinship, adoptive, or guardianship home when it is in the best interest of each sibling and when an appropriate, capable, and willing joint placement for the sibling group is available.
2. If a child enters out-of-home care after his or her sibling, the department or lead agency and the multidisciplinary team shall make reasonable efforts to initially place the child who has entered out-of-home care with his or her siblings in the sibling’s existing placement, provided it would not jeopardize the stability of such placement and it is in the best interest for each child.
3. When determining whether to move a child from a current placement to a new placement when such change is initiated by a sibling relationship, all relevant factors must be considered by the multidisciplinary team to ensure that the child is best served by the decision. A uniform policy that does not consider and apply a balancing test to ensure all existing attachment bonds for a child and his or her siblings are honored and evaluated holistically may result in placement decisions or changes of placement decisions that may result in additional trauma.
4. The department and the court are not required to make a change in placement, whether such change is to the physical residential address of the child or the legal custody of the child, to develop a relationship between siblings which did not exist at the time a child is placed in out-of-home care and must determine whether the change in placement is contrary to the child’s safety and well-being by evaluating all of the factors in this section and ss. 39.01375, 39.4022, and 39.4023.
(b) Factors to consider when placing sibling groups.—
1. At the time a child who is a part of a sibling group is removed from the home, the department or lead agency shall convene a multidisciplinary team staffing in accordance with s. 39.4022 to determine and assess the sibling relationships from the perspective of each child to ensure the best placement of each child in the sibling group. The multidisciplinary team shall consider all relevant factors included in s. 39.01375 and this section, including, but not limited to, the existing emotional ties between and among the siblings, the degree of harm each child is likely to experience as a result of separation, and the standard protocols established by the Quality Parenting Initiative under paragraph (d).
2.a. If the department or the appropriate lead agency is able to locate a caregiver that will accept the sibling group and the multidisciplinary team determines that the placement is suitable for each child, the sibling group must be placed together.
b. If the department or appropriate lead agency is not able to locate a caregiver or placement option that allows the sibling group to be placed together in an initial placement, the department or lead agency must make all reasonable efforts to ensure contact and visitation between siblings placed in separate out-of-home care placements and provide reviews of the placements in accordance with this section.
3. If all the siblings are unable to be placed in an existing placement and the siblings do not have an existing relationship, when determining whether to move any child who is part of the sibling group from his or her current placement to a new placement that will unite the sibling group, the department or lead agency must consider all of the following additional factors:
a. The presence and quality of current attachment relationships, including:
(I) The quality and length of the attachment of the child to both the current and prospective caregiver;
(II) The age of the child at placement with the current caregiver and the child’s current age as well as the ages of any siblings;
(III) The ease with which the child formed an attachment to the current family;
(IV) Any indications of attachment difficulty in the child’s history; and
(V) The number of moves and number of caregivers the child has experienced.
b. The potential of the new caregiver to be a primary attachment figure to the sibling group by ensuring care for each child’s physical needs and the willingness and availability to meet each child’s emotional needs.
c. The quality of existing sibling relationships and the potential quality of sibling relationships that can be formed between the children.
d. The consideration of any costs and benefits of disrupting existing emotional attachments to a primary caregiver to place children in a new placement with siblings, including:
(I) The length and quality of the established and current primary attachment relationships between the siblings and between the siblings and their current caregivers; and
(II) Relationships between any other siblings and whether such relationships appear adequate and not stressful or harmful.
e. The ability to establish and maintain sibling visitation and contact pursuant to this section in a manner and schedule that makes sense for an infant or young child if it is determined that the infant or young child is to remain with his or her primary caregivers rather than be placed with his or her siblings.
f. The ability to establish and maintain contact with the sibling and new caregiver as part of a transition plan developed in accordance with paragraph (c) and s. 39.4023 before changing the child’s placement to allow the child, his or her siblings, and new caregiver to adjust and form bonds.
(c) Transitioning a child after a determination.—If after considering the provisions and factors described in paragraphs (a) and (b) it is determined that the child would benefit from being placed with his or her siblings, the transition of the child to the new home must be carried out gradually in accordance with s. 39.4023.
(d) Standards for evaluating sibling placements.—The department, in collaboration with the Quality Parenting Initiative, must develop standard protocols for the department and lead agency which incorporate the provisions and factors described in paragraphs (a), (b), and (c) and any other factors deemed relevant for use in making decisions about when placing siblings together would be contrary to a child’s well-being or safety or decisions providing for frequent visitation and contact under subsection (4).
(4) MAINTAINING CONTACT WHEN SIBLINGS ARE SEPARATED.—
(a) Regular contact among a sibling group that cannot be placed together, especially among siblings with existing attachments to each other, is critical for the siblings to maintain their existing bonds and relationships or to develop such bonds and attachments, if appropriate. The following practices must be considered in helping to maintain or strengthen the relationships of separated siblings:
1. Respect and support the child’s ties to his or her birth or legal family, including parents, siblings, and extended family members, must be provided by the caregiver, and he or she must assist the child in maintaining allowable visitation and other forms of communication. The department and lead agency shall provide a caregiver with the information, guidance, training, and support necessary for fulfilling this responsibility.
2. Provide adequate support to address any caregiver concerns and to enhance the caregiver’s ability to facilitate contact between siblings who are not in the same out-of-home placement and promote the benefits of sibling contact.
3. Prioritize placements with kinship caregivers who have an established personal relationship with each child so that even when siblings cannot be placed together in the same home, kinship caregivers are more likely to facilitate contact.
4. Prioritize placement of siblings geographically near each other, such as in the same neighborhood or school district, to make it easier for the siblings to see each other regularly.
5. Encourage frequent and regular visitation, if the siblings choose to do so, to allow the children to be actively involved in each other’s lives and to participate in celebrations, including, but not limited to, birthdays, graduations, holidays, school and extracurricular activities, cultural customs, and other milestones.
6. Provide other forms of contact when regular in-person meetings are not possible or are not sufficient to meet the needs or desires of the siblings, such as maintaining frequent contact through letters, e-mail, social media, cards, or telephone calls.
7. Coordinate, when possible, joint outings or summer or weekend camp experiences to facilitate time together, including, but not limited to, activities or camps specifically designed for siblings in out-of-home care.
8. Encourage joint respite care to assist the caregivers who are caring for separated siblings to have needed breaks while also facilitating contact among the siblings, including, but not limited to, providing babysitting or respite care for each other. A child being moved temporarily as respite care for the purpose of providing the primary caregiver relief and encouraging and facilitating contact among the siblings does not constitute a placement change or require the convening of a multidisciplinary team.
9. Prohibit the withholding of communication or visitation among the siblings as a form of punishment.
(b) The court may not limit or restrict communication or visitation under this subsection unless there is a finding that the communication or visitation between the child and his or her siblings is contrary to the safety or well-being of the child. If the court makes such a finding, and services are available that would reasonably be expected to ameliorate the risk to the child’s safety or well-being that are the basis of the court’s finding and that may result in the communication and visitation being restored, the court must direct the department or community-based care lead agency to immediately provide such services.
(5) SUBSEQUENT REVIEWS.—
(a) The department and the lead agency shall periodically, but at least once every 6 months, reassess sibling placement, visitation, and other sibling contact decisions in cases where siblings are separated, not visiting, or not maintaining contact to determine if a change in placement is warranted unless the decision to not place a child with his or her sibling group was made due to such placement being inappropriate, unhealthy, or unsafe for the child.
(b) If a child in a sibling group who has been placed in an out-of-home care placement with his or her siblings does not adjust to the placement, the lead agency must provide services to the caregiver and sibling group in accordance with s. 39.4023(3) to try to prevent the disruption of the placement. If after reasonable efforts are made under s. 39.4023(3), the child still has not adjusted to the out-of-home placement, a multidisciplinary team staffing must be convened to determine what is best for all of the children. The multidisciplinary team shall review the current placement of the sibling group and choose a plan that will be least detrimental to each child. If the team determines that the best decision is to move the child who has not adjusted to a new out-of-home placement, the team must develop a transition plan in accordance with ss. 39.4022 and 39.4023 which ensures the opportunity for the siblings to maintain contact in accordance with subsection (4) of this section.
(c) If it becomes known that a child in out-of-home care has a sibling of whom the child, department, or lead agency was previously unaware, the department or lead agency must convene a multidisciplinary team staffing within a reasonable amount of time after the discovery of such sibling to decide if the current placement or permanency plan requires modification.
(6) ADDITIONAL REQUIREMENTS AND CONSIDERATIONS.—
(a) The department shall promptly provide a child with the location of and contact information for his or her siblings. If the existence or location of or contact information for a child’s siblings is not known, the department must make reasonable efforts to ascertain such information.
(b)1. If a child’s sibling is also in out-of-home care and such sibling leaves out-of-home care due to emancipation or reunification with his or her parent or guardian, the child must be allowed to communicate with that emancipated or reunified sibling, if the emancipated sibling or the reunified sibling and his or her parent consent.
2. If a child’s sibling is also in out-of-home care and such sibling leaves out-of-home care for any reason, including, but not limited to, the reasons in subparagraph 1. and communication is not occurring, the child has a right to have the court consider the appropriateness of continued communication with his or her sibling. The court shall consider the recommendation of the department or community-based care lead agency and any other information deemed relevant by the court.
3. If a child’s sibling leaves out-of-home care because he or she is adopted, the child may be allowed to have continued communication with the sibling either by consent of the adoptive parent or by order of the court in accordance with s. 63.0427.
(c) The department or the lead agency must document in writing any decision to separate siblings in the case file as required in s. 39.00146 and document the decision in the Florida Safe Families Network. The documentation must include any efforts made to keep the siblings together, an assessment of the short-term and long-term effects of separation on each child and the sibling group as a whole, and a description of the plan for communication or contact between the children if separation is approved.
(7) EXEMPTION.—Placements made pursuant to s. 63.082(6) are exempt from this section.
(8) RULEMAKING AUTHORITY.—The department shall adopt rules to implement this section.
History.—s. 9, ch. 2021-169.