The chief justice of the state's highest court has criticized the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for its handling of the adoption of a Knox County child.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled Tuesday, Jan. 30, in a disputed case of competing families wanting to adopt a 2-year-old girl.

The dispute pitted a couple from Massachusetts, who had adopted two of the girl's five siblings, and foster parents in the Midcoast, who have cared for the child — born in October 2015 — since she was 12 days old.

The Judicial Court unanimously upheld the ruling of a district court judge to grant adoption to the local foster parents.

"I must reluctantly concur in the court’s opinion, particularly given the child’s attachment to her foster family in Maine. I write separately, however, because the State’s delays in establishing a solid contact schedule with the Massachusetts family have led to the sad result that [the child] will be deprived of the opportunity to grow up in an available family with her biological siblings," Chief Justice Leigh Saufley stated in a separate opinion.

The girl was put into foster care because of the mother's opiate addiction.

The Massachusetts couple had sought to have the girl placed with them after she was put in foster care, but DHHS kept the child with the local foster parents in hopes of making it easier to attempt reunification of the child with the mother.

"The Department was concerned that placing [the girl] with the appellants in southern Massachusetts would make its efforts toward reunification with the mother in mid-coast Maine much more difficult," according to the high court.

In December 2016 the mother's addiction relapsed, she was incarcerated and reunification efforts ended.

The court ruling does not discuss the father, other than to say the child's parents agreed to surrender their parental rights in March 2017. There is also no information on the status of the girl's three other siblings.

The Massachusetts couple with the child's siblings had notified DHHS from the beginning that they were interested in caring for the girl, and in February 2017 petitioned to adopt the child. The foster parents filed their petition for adoption in April 2017.

Two weeks before a contested adoption hearing was scheduled in Knox County, DHHS stated it planned to place the girl with the Massachusetts couple.

At the June 2017 District Court hearing, the foster parents presented a witness who specializes in the study of early child attachment. That witness testified that the child considered the foster parents to be her parents. At the hearing, DHHS was also unable to identify who within the agency made the decision to recommend that the girl be adopted by the Massachusetts couple.

District Court Judge Susan Sparaco granted the foster parents' petition to adopt the girl and rejected the Massachusetts couple's petition in a June 29, 2017, order.

"The court finds that the harm of removing [the girl] from the [foster parents’] home outweighs any inadequacies of that placement, specifically the fact that [the girl] will not be living with biological siblings. [The girl[ has formed a strong attachment to the [foster parents’] family. . . .For [the girl], [the foster parents] are her parents and their two children are her siblings," Sparaco stated.

The Massachusetts couple filed an appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. The high court held a hearing Dec. 14.

"Had the Department acted more expeditiously and assertively to establish a relationship between [the child] and the family of her sisters, she could have been adopted into the same family and had the benefit of a childhood and adolescence spent with her own sisters. The value of that family connection appears to have been lost in the Department’s slow response to the Massachusetts family’s availability, and those actions have cost this child dearly," Saufley stated.

"Especially in light of the tragedies caused by the opioid addiction epidemic, it is important to honor the Legislature’s purpose to provide for the early placement of children whose parents cannot care for them with other family members so that the children can grow up with a strong sense of family identity and are not deprived of the lifetime connection that a childhood and adolescence shared with siblings or other relatives can provide," Saufley said.

Attorney Kevin Sullivan of Gardiner, who represented the Massachusetts couple, said his clients were disappointed with the ruling and mostly disappointed with the handling of the matter by the state.

"I know DHHS has a difficult job, but that is not an excuse; they still have to do their job," he said.

While the ruling was unfortunate for his clients, Sullivan said he hopes this means no one else will have to go through this ordeal.

He said he is hopeful that the two families will have contact so the girl can have a relationship with her siblings.

"Although these types of matters are difficult, the child is absolutely where she belongs — with her adoptive siblings and the only family that she has ever known and loved. While sibling relationships are important considerations, so are the individual needs of each child. There is no tragedy involved when a child maintains the love and stability she needs," said attorney Sarah Irving Gilbert, who represents the foster parents.

An email was sent Jan. 31 to DHHS seeking comment. There was no immediate response.