Bed-Stuy woman, LaToya Lennard, helps change sibling rights laws in NY

A plucky 24-year-old foster care veteran from Bedford-Stuyvesant has helped change state law so that the rights of siblings will be automatically considered when a child is placed in foster care or adopted out of it.

The pleas of LaToya Lennard, who went to court when she turned 18 to win the right to see her adopted baby sister “really caught the eye of the Family Court Advisory and Rules Committee, which drafted the legislation,” explained Dawn Post, co-borough director of The Children’s Law Center.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the bill on Aug. 19. The amended laws now require foster care agencies to arrange “appropriate and regular” contact for siblings and half-siblings not placed together unless contact is not in a child’s best interests and stipulate that a termination of parental rights and, by extension, adoption does not terminate sibling relationships.

“This makes me feel really empowered and good — to change things for the better for everyone else. It’s an accomplishment! I’ve been talking about this [the devastating effects of forced sibling separation] everywhere,” said Lennard, who has spoken at law schools, symposia, adoption conferences, and had her story included in a law review treatise.

New York is now one of the few states to strengthen the rights of siblings to see brothers and sisters separated by foster care and adoption, said Post, who credits Lennard for sparking the crusade for reform. “Historically, we have relied on the promises of adoptive parents,” to keep the children they adopt in touch with their biological siblings, but many “do not follow through on those promises,” Post explained.

The legislation affects many of the 9,473 New York City children now in foster care and the more than 1,000 children adopted out of the system each year, according to statistics provided by the Administration for Children’s Services.

Lennard went into foster care when she was a few months old and was adopted by her maternal grandmother, eventually moving to the Bronx. Her biological mom had another baby, Jaylin, when Lennard was 8 years old. Lennard’s grandmother, in failing health, could not care for a newborn, so Jaylin was placed in another foster home. The two girls saw each other regularly at a Brooklyn foster care agency, which hosted the supervised visits. But when Jaylin was adopted at age 3, all contact abruptly stopped: Jaylin’s adoptive mother refused to answer or return calls from Lennard, and Lennard was bereft after losing touch with the little sister she loved. “My conscience told me I couldn’t just let her go,” so she never stopped trying to see her, Lennard said.

When Lennard turned 18, she went to Family Court in Brooklyn to petition for the right to see Jaylin, and encountered Post, who had been appointed to look out for Jaylin’s best interests. “I realized what an amazing person [Lennard] was and her story really got me reflecting,” Post recalled. “Sibling connections are often more important than parental connections, and children can find it more traumatic to be separated from their siblings than from their parents. Often, the older child is like a psychological parent,” to the younger one, Post explained.

The Children’s Law Center, which provides children a voice in legal matters that concern them, took up Lennard’s cause and a law review article co-authored by Post piqued the interest of state officials. Janet Fink, deputy counsel at the N.Y. State Unified Court System, told Lennard, “You’ve inspired us: We’re going to do something about this,” Post recounted.

The new law is especially valuable because it doesn’t simply stipulate that visits be arranged, Post said: “It’s contact! Why can’t they do sleepovers? We shouldn’t be doing visits only in the constraints of an agency in these sterile environments.”

Now, advocates will become more proactive in filing petitions on behalf of young clients, and judges will receive training on the new rules. Adoptive parents also need to be educated as to the importance of keeping biological siblings in touch Post said.

Jaylin’s adoptive mom, who eventually allowed Lennard to resume contact, told Lennard she “didn’t want Jaylin to know she was adopted,” and feared messy interactions with the girls’ biological parents, Lennard said.

A spokeswoman for the NYC’s Administration for Children’s Services acknowledged that the agency was not thrilled about certain language in the bill. But “we strongly support the intent of this law and will work closely with the state to address outstanding questions,” she said in a statement.

As for Lennard, she is working at a Whole Foods and a spa while trying to get back into college to pursue a social work degree. Her goal? To become a social worker helping other adoptees and foster kids. She sees Jaylin, who is now 16, frequently now, and treasures their bond even more since their grandmother — who also longed to see Jaylin — died in 2012.

Jaylin, said Lennard, likes hip-hop and Baltimore club music, which is fine, but Big Sis would prefer Little Sis nix the twerking. “I don’t agree with it, but she told me she’s going to do it (twerk) when I’m not there,” sighed Lennard. That’s OK, though: “I know what it’s like to be a teenager. I can mentor her.”