Like other 4-year-olds, spiky-haired Steven Lewis loves mugging for the cameras and going on car rides.
It's a remarkable turnaround for the Hemet boy, who, as a baby, suffered abuse in foster care so severe his doctors thought he would never speak.
But there's one thing Steven's adoptive parents, Jennifer Lewis and Deanna Sandlin, have not been able to provide him since adopting him when he was 21 months old: contact with a biological sister he has never met. The girl was adopted into another family and Lewis and Sandlin have had no luck reaching them.
But a new California law that went into effect Jan. 1 gives the Inland couple and potentially thousands of other adoptive parents new options.
Previously, adoption agencies could only give siblings their brothers' and sisters' names and addresses if the siblings had reached 21 years of age and only if they each had filed a request for contact with the other sibling. Both siblings also had to sign a waiver agreeing to the release of their information.
Now, the age of consent has dropped to 18. And siblings younger than 18 can file requests with the consent of their adoptive parents.
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Ed Crisostomo / The Press-Enterprise
Deanna Sandlin, left, and her partner, Jennifer Lewis, spend time with their adopted son, 4-year-old Steven, left, and two girls, 2 years old, and an 11-month-old boy, who are in the process of being adopted.
Further, if one of the siblings has not filed a waiver, the sibling seeking the information can petition the court to appoint a confidential intermediary to obtain the consent of the other sibling.
Other states, including New Mexico, Oklahoma, Washington and Wyoming, have such a system.
Proponents of the new law say sibling relationships are especially critical in cases where siblings were abused or neglected.
"They come to depend on each other," said Leslie Heimov, policy director of the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles, which sponsored the bill.
Separated siblings often worry about each other, which could cause them to lose focus at school or make it difficult for them to form strong relationships with others, Heimov said.
Sometimes, when children see good qualities in a brother or sister, "they are less likely to see themselves as a 'bad kid from a bad family,' " according to a fact sheet published by the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse in Washington, D.C.
Ron Dooley, 24, of San Jacinto, who supports the new law, said he can't imagine what life would've been like growing up without his sister.
From the time he was 4 to when he graduated from high school, Dooley and his older sister lived in eight foster homes. Fortunately, social workers kept them together during every move, he said.
"Every time you go to a new house, there's someone there to trust and love," Dooley said. "They've gone through the same stuff you have. It's easier to confide to them."
It is always a priority to keep siblings together, Inland adoption workers say. Sometimes they look outside the state for adoptive parents if it means keeping the siblings together. But sometimes they have no choice, typically because adoptive parents are often unwilling to take in several children.
In Riverside County, 3,879 of the 5,544 children in foster care had at least one sibling as of July 1, according to data compiled by the Center for Social Services Research at UC Berkeley. Of those, 24 percent were placed with none of their siblings. In San Bernardino County, 3,418 of the 5,061 children in foster care had at least one sibling. Of those, 25 percent were placed with none of their siblings.
Inland social workers said they recognize the importance of maintaining contact among siblings who have been separated and do make attempts to facilitate post-adoption contacts. For instance, if one of the siblings, has not signed a waiver agreeing to the release of his or her information, social workers will call that person to try to obtain that consent.
Last year, in Riverside County, social workers helped facilitate about 50 such contacts. In San Bernardino County, workers helped seven.
"We've had situations where someone has come through and discovered eight, nine, 10 other siblings they didn't know about," said Jill Johnson, a Riverside County post-adoption social worker. "It gives them a chance to know there are more of them out there."
Experts, however, warn that some siblings or their adoptive parents don't want to be contacted.
Not Always Successful
It's a reality that Lewis and Sandlin, both 34, know well.
The adopted family of Steven's older sister had consented to social workers to being contacted. But for six months, Lewis and Sandlin have tried -- and failed -- to reach the family through phone calls and e-mails.
Experts cite various reasons that some adoptive parents are reluctant to let their adopted child have contact with a biological brother or sister:
Some parents are just too busy.
The child may be having emotional problems and the timing is not right.
Some adoptive parents could fear that exposure to a sibling could erode the family unit they've built.
Sometimes, reluctant families warm up with a bit of prodding and assurance that their personal information will be kept confidential, said Gwen Culbreth, a San Bernardino County post-adoption social worker.
It might start with allowing the siblings to exchange letters or photographs and build up to a meeting in the park, she said.
"I don't put pressure on anybody," Culbreth said. "I try to tell them of the benefits, that it's a blood tie there. They don't feel so alone."
Lewis and Sandlin vow not to give up. They've seen the joy that bringing siblings together can elicit.
In addition to Steven, Lewis and Sandlin have custody of three other children -- an 11-month-old boy and two 2-year-old girls -- and are in the process of finalizing adoption paperwork for all of them.
One of the girls has an older sister who lives with another adopted family. The girls see each other about once every six weeks.
They share the same smiles and belly laughs and move like "wet noodles," Lewis said. And the older sister is ecstatic whenever the girls are reunited.
"She hugs her, kisses her, sits proudly next to her," she said.
Ian, the 8-year-old adopted son of Michael and Sheila Rutledge, also of Hemet, sees his twin sister twice a year. They share the same crooked smile and are shy around strangers.
"It gives you a sense of worth, that ground feeling," to be able to interact with a sibling, Michael Rutledge said.
"I think it's as basic as, 'Oh wow, I have your nose,' " his wife said.