Every day, the Halverson siblings wonder if their 3-year-old sister will finally be allowed to join their family.
Damon and Aleeah's long wait might end soon -- or the hundreds of miles that separate their home near Brainerd, Minn., from their sister's foster home in Nebraska might become a permanent barrier. The siblings are at the heart of a Nebraska court battle that could establish a legal precedent on whether siblings have a right to live together if they become wards of the state.
Damon, 8, and Aleeah, 7, were adopted seven years ago by Jeff and Karen Halverson of Staples, Minn. Their sister Meridian has been in the Nebraska foster care system since her mother was arrested there for drunken driving in 2007.
The Halversons are trying to adopt the girl, but the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services believes Meridian shouldn't be uprooted from the foster family she has lived with for more than two years. In 2010, a juvenile court judge agreed, saying Meridian's foster parents "have loved and cared for her as if she were their own child."
The case, which was argued before the Nebraska Supreme Court in March, is the first test of a 2008 federal law aimed at keeping siblings together, according to several experts monitoring the case.
Under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, states must make reasonable efforts to place siblings in the same foster care or adoptive homes unless the state shows that decision "would be contrary to the safety or well-being" of the children.
"This case will have impact," said Linda Spears, vice president of policy and program management at the Child Welfare League of America. "It becomes the comparison point for similar cases."
Spears said Congress passed the Fostering Connections Act because public agencies across the country frequently face the challenges illustrated by this case -- how to keep siblings together when they are born at different times and in different states.
The Nebraska case will influence how states implement the law, she said.
Mary Martin Mason, executive director of the Minnesota Adoption Resource Network, believes the Nebraska case "holds significant issues regarding best practices in adoption and child welfare," according to a letter she wrote last month.
Chris Costantakos, an Omaha attorney who represents Damon and Aleeah, argued that Nebraska officials failed to show how Meridian would be harmed if she joined her siblings in Minnesota.
"I think it's a tremendous injustice for the department to stand in the way of this child having the chance to live with the only brother and sister she has in her life," Costantakos said.
Meridian's mother lost custody of her youngest child in 2007 after she was involved in a drunken driving accident. The baby was in the car.
She relinquished her parental rights to Damon and Aleeah before they were adopted in 2004. The children's father died in a car accident two weeks before Meridian was born.
Tammy Hazel, the children's maternal grandmother, called Nebraska authorities after the accident to tell them Meridian's grandparents and siblings all live in Minnesota. Hazel was told Meridian had to stay in Nebraska while the state tried to reunify her with her mother.
"When families are willing and able and more than qualified to keep the family intact, it's not up to officials to get in the way of that," said Brenda Hanson, the children's paternal grandmother.
The Halversons made several trips to Nebraska so the siblings could get to know each other. "Damon and Aleeah kept saying 'When are we going to get our little sister?"' Karen Halverson said.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has a policy to place siblings together whenever possible. But that policy is based on an assumption that there is a preexisting relationship between the children, and that's not the case with Meridian and her siblings, argued attorney Carla Heathershaw Risko, who represents the department.
"They had been adopted two and a half years before Meridian was even born, so there had never been any connection," Heathershaw Risko said at the Supreme Court hearing.
Spears, of the Child Welfare League, said the Fostering Connections Act doesn't specifically mention whether a preexisting relationship is necessary for the law to apply.
But she thinks it would be a "slippery slope" if any court decided that it was.
"Those relationships are meaningful and significant to people even when they have never met," Spears said.
She cited the recent high-profile reunion of Oprah and her biological sister who had been adopted.
The Halversons want the children to develop lifelong ties. They worry about what will happen if Meridian isn't able to develop a relationship with the family members she has left.
"Damon and Aleeah and Meridian have already lost their biological mom and dad," Karen Halverson said. "That is a tear in their fabric, so do you take it and tear it some more?"
Contact Lora Pabst at email@example.com.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com