The Nevada Supreme Court gave hope to a teenage girl in foster care who wants to regain contact with her three younger sisters.
In a case pitting the privacy rights of adoptive parents against the rights of siblings to see each other, the court ruled Tuesday against the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services, which sought to keep the teen from contacting her sisters' adoptive parents.
The court stopped short of deciding whether the teenager can visit her siblings. That decision will be left to a Clark County Family Court judge.
In a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Deborah Agosti, the court said Child and Family Services, as the teenager's custodian, "has a continuing obligation to act in her best interests."
"The tragedy of DCFS's conduct is that it places all of these girls in the position of knowing that they have sisters but not being able to locate them until the girls reach the age of majority," Agosti said.
Clark County Legal Services lawyer Liliana Loftman said the decision "acknowledges that older children, particularly older children with siblings, had lives before coming into DCFS custody."
The high court ordered Child and Family Services to turn over to the teenager's attorney the addresses of the younger sisters' adoptive parents for the limited purpose of serving the parents with a petition for sibling visitation.
Deputy state Attorney General Linda Anderson said the ruling could have discourage those who want to adopt children.
"This is yet another thing they have to think about before making a decision to adopt," she said.
The case involved four girls who became wards of the state in April 1998. The oldest is identified in the Supreme Court opinion as "A.M.S." and now is about 14.
"Because their mother's drug addiction prevented her from fulfilling her maternal obligations, A.M.S., then 9, had assumed the role of mother to the three younger girls, then 5 years, 4 years and an infant," according to the ruling. "As a result, A.M.S. felt, and continues to feel, a strong bond with her siblings."
The mother's parental rights were terminated in July 2000. One of the girls was reunited with her biological father in September 2000 and remains with him.
Two of the girls, including the youngest, were adopted by separate families in November 2001.
According to the ruling, a Family Court judge ordered in September 2000 that a visitation plan be established before final adoption and that the girls be given unlimited unsupervised visitation.
"The girls' adult caregivers, including DCFS, failed to comply with this order," the Supreme Court said.
Anderson said there was confusion about whether sibling visitation should be allowed.
Child and Family Services refused to disclose the names and addresses of the adoptive parents, and appealed a Clark County Family Court judge's August 2002 ruling granting the teen the right to serve legal documents on the adoptive parents.