In 2017, Tatyanna Taylor faced one of the most difficult dilemmas in her life.
Because of an abusive relationship she got into as a teenager, she said the city had placed her three children into foster care. Then, a foster care agency brought a case against her to terminate her parental rights — a legal action that would end the possibility of her getting back her children and could cut them out of her life entirely.
She was forced to decide whether to fight her case in a family court trial. If she lost, she would no longer have the right to visit her children. Or she could voluntarily surrender her rights, allowing her children to be adopted but retaining her legal right to stay in their lives.
She ultimately decided to relinquish her parental rights. The next year, two of the children were adopted. The other remained in foster care. The 26-year-old Brooklyn mother argues she was effectively coerced into giving up her right to fight for her parental rights in court.
Advocates are now calling on Governor Kathy Hochul to sign a new bill that gives judges more discretion for parents who lose their parental rights after family court hearings, which they say disproportionately affects Black and Latino parents. The Preserving Family Bonds Act, which passed the Senate and Assembly in June, would amend New York law to ensure contact between children and their biological parents in cases where a judge thinks it would be in a child’s best interest.
“The Preserving Family Bonds Act would provide help that some children in foster care so desperately want — the ability to maintain some contact with their families after the termination of parental rights,” said Dawne A. Mitchell, attorney-in-charge of The Legal Aid Society, Juvenile Rights Practice. “We know that giving family court judges the discretion to order continuing contact works, because judges in parts of New York State did it for years without grave consequences.”
Taylor said even though she could have argued to a judge that she had made significant progress in her life — she left her abusive relationship, started to attend GED classes and began counseling sessions on domestic violence — the risk of going to trial and losing her right to have contact with her children was too great.
She said the bill would have freed her to fight her case in court.
“I would have definitely [taken] it all the way through. Either way, my voice would have been heard. My progress would have been seen,” she said.
Since 2012, hundreds of New York parents have had to make a tough choice, similar to Taylor’s. That year, in the case of an incarcerated father trying to maintain contact with his daughter, the state’s Court of Appeals decided that, contrary to local practice in some areas, judges did not have the legal authority to ensure that parents could have contact with their biological children after losing their parental rights.
Bronx Assemblymember Latoya Joyner, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the legislation would help working-class Black and Latino parents, in particular, who often feel coerced into forfeiting their rights.
“Many are just waiving their rights and voluntarily surrendering their parental rights in order to still maintain that contact. But parents. who want to fight and go to trial, if they lose, they lose all contact,” Joyner said. “So this is a threat that's being held over many biological parents.”
An earlier version of the bill also passed through the Legislature in 2019 but was vetoed by former Governor Andrew Cuomo, following opposition from adoptive services organizations.
Advocates for foster and adoptive parents opposed that bill at the time and remain staunch in their opposition to this new version, which they say unfairly shifts the court’s focus away from the interests of the child to those of parents whose rights have been taken away.
In a written statement, Pat O’Brien, executive director of the Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, said his organization believes a better option is for adoptive and birth parents to work together “to preserve a child’s connections” outside of court.
“There is nothing to prevent this from happening before and after adoption and continued visits are encouraged as best for almost all of the children involved,” O’Brien said by email. “Forcing connection via court order, however, is not the answer. Mediation, supported, collaborative relationship-building from the moment a child enters foster care are just two of the much better alternatives. This bill offers none of this.”
Joyner, who was adopted herself, said the modified bill allows judges to take concerns over children’s safety and well-being into consideration.
“People want to know their identity. They want to know where they come from,” she said. “Knowing our past is so crucial for us in developing our future selves. This bill is going to open that pathway, and not target Black and brown parents who end up in this web of a system that at times destroys families.”
In a brief statement, Hazel Crampton-Hayes, a spokesperson for Hochul, said the governor’s team is reviewing the legislation.
New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) said it was not taking a position on the pending piece of legislation. In an email, a spokesperson for the agency said that when a child is placed in foster care, its “foremost goal” is to return that child to his or her home safely. ACS also noted that in recent years it has significantly increased the percentage of children placed with family members in cases in which foster care is deemed necessary.
Editor's note: This article has been updated. ACS said it was not taking a position on the Preserving Family Bonds Act. The original article misstated that it had declined to comment on the legislation.