National Post

Tuesday, January 05, 1999

Court ruling tears young siblings apart
Attorney to appeal: Boston boy, 4, to leave foster home to live with aunt

Araminta Wordsworth
National Post, with files from news services

In a case resembling a modern-day judgment of Solomon, a four-year-old Boston boy has been torn from his six-year-old sister, from the foster mother he calls Mommy, and from the only stable home he has ever known.

Clutching a stuffed animal, the child, identified only as Hugo L., was taken to live with his father's sister in New Jersey, under an order from a Massachusetts court.

"It is the saddest of sad days," said Susan Dillard, a court-appointed attorney who fought to keep Hugo with his sister and foster mother, and who is appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court in what could prove to be a landmark case.

Ms. Dillard has asked the court to declare that siblings have the constitutional right to be together, a ruling that could affect 35,000 siblings across the country.

This would reverse such "heart-wrenching" rulings as those by two Massachusetts courts deciding it was in Hugo's best interest to live with his aunt, even if he had to be separated from his sister.

Hugo and his sister, "Gloria L.," hugged and kissed during a tearful farewell on Saturday in which the aunt and Enid L., the children's foster mother, discussed visitation plans.

Susan Drogin, a court-appointed lawyer for the boy's father, said the decision was in Hugo's best interests -- the boy has developmental problems and needs speech, physical, and occupational therapy.

"The bottom line is not about brother and sister," she said. "It's about Hugo's special needs. It is only about Hugo's special needs."

The case has sparked widespread interest and concern about the rights of children to stay with their siblings.

Neither Gloria nor Hugo has ever lived with their biological parents, both having been taken into care days after they were born.

The parents were declared unfit by a judge because of drug abuse and domestic violence. The mother, a cocaine addict, suffers from chronic paranoid schizophrenia. The father also has a record of substance abuse.

The mother's cocaine use during her pregnancy may have contributed to Hugo's developmental problems.

The parents fought for two years to prevent Hugo from being adopted.

For the past two years he has lived with his sister and foster mother in their home in Dorchester, a Boston suburb. During that time, he has enjoyed some measure of stability and family life, and become close to his sister.

Enid has cared for Gloria since birth, and officially adopted her more than two years ago.

The two siblings do everything together, and have developed a bond so close that Gloria finishes sentences for her brother when he has trouble communicating, Ms. Dillard said.

"I'm not saying that you can never separate siblings, but I'm saying the law says you can separate child and mother, but use some criteria," she said.

The children themselves want to stay together. "Gloria was saying, 'My brother is not leaving,' and he would say, 'I'm not leaving,' " said Ms. Dillard.

Ms. Drogin argues the stress of the move will be short-lived and the likelihood Hugo's disabilities will be understood and addressed by an experienced person such as his aunt outweighs the problems brought on by the separation of the children.

"Of course he will be traumatized. But he will be happy again. His aunt is a wonderful, wonderful lady," she said.

However, court records show that Hugo "reacts badly" to change.

A simple thing like moving his car seat from the front to back seat sent him "off the wall" when he moved from his first foster mother to Enid.

"I know the aunt is sincere and does genuinely believe she is doing something to benefit her nephew, but Hugo will be harmed by this," Ms. Dillard said.

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