Split the baby: Two sides of an adoption battle

The fight over two baby girls could change how Minnesota considers relatives and race in adoption cases

Split the baby: Two sides of an adoption battle

UPDATE: In late March of 2013, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Grossers. The next week, Dorothy Dunning rallied national advocates to protest the verdict at the Hennepin County Government Center. She remains determined to adopt her granddaughters. "We're going to get a national investigation happening here," Dunning says.

Just before 9 a.m. on January 8, courtroom 300 at the Minnesota Judicial Center fell silent.

On the left side of the courtroom, Dorothy Dunning sat next to her husband, Lawrence. The couple had flown up from Mississippi on Sunday in anticipation of the trial. Dorothy was flanked by supporters, all African-American like her, some of whom she'd just met. They'd flocked to tell her their stories: One had fought the system for five years to get her grandson back from protective services; another's son was beaten by his foster parents.

Minnesota's Supreme Court Justices hear arguments from the Dunnings' lawyer
Jayme Halbritter
Minnesota's Supreme Court Justices hear arguments from the Dunnings' lawyer
Dorothy Dunning tells her story to a group of supporters at the Minneapolis Urban League
Jayme Halbritter
Dorothy Dunning tells her story to a group of supporters at the Minneapolis Urban League

On the right side of the courtroom, Liv Grosser, a slim white woman with cropped red hair, sat close to her husband, Steven. They had driven to downtown St. Paul from their six-bedroom home in Plymouth. Close friends sat on either side, and members of their church, New Hope, filed into the other rows.

Their two foster children, three-year-old Princess and two-year-old Dorothy, had stayed home. Dorothy Dunning would get to see them later in the day, for visitation. They were her biological grandchildren, the younger girl named after her. But they had moved in with the Grossers within days of birth, and the house in Plymouth was the only home they'd ever known. Now the two families were fighting for custody.

"It was like a wedding," says Wright Walling, the Grossers' lawyer, with the two families and all of their supporters split into pews.

At 9 a.m. sharp, "All rise" echoed through the courtroom, and the seven black-robed justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court filed in. Newly appointed Justice Wilhelmina Wright, the court's first African-American woman, sat on the far right. From that perch, she would ask some of the case's most delicate questions: about whether race can ever really be removed from the equation, even though federal and state laws banish it from consideration.

"These are African-American children," she said. "In America, taking race out may be counter to their best interest."

Contested adoptions are rare. Hennepin County handles only two to three per year. Most cases never get to that point: Statewide, of 11,400 children in out-of-home placements in 2011, 80 percent were reunited with family.

Those involving trans-racial adoptions, where a family like the Grossers is a different ethnicity than the child it's fighting to adopt, are even more unusual.

Back in 1983, Minnesota became the first state in the country to pass laws, known as the Minority Child Protection Act, specifying that minority children should be placed with relatives or, failing that, with a family that shares the child's race.

A decade later, the "Baby D" case changed all that. In 1992, the state Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's decision to remove a three-year-old black girl from a white foster family she had lived with since birth, and gave custody to her grandparents.

Public outcry over Baby D's fate helped prompt state legislators to loosen the heritage preference. Not long after, the federal government stepped in to rule that heritage cannot be considered at all.

But in practice, family ties — and heritage — continue to hold considerable sway.

"Having been in the field for 20-plus years, there is much more emphasis on maintaining a kin tie with kids now than ever before," says Traci LaLiberte, executive director of the Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare at the University of Minnesota.

Though the Minnesota Supreme Court's hands are tied on how to consider race, there's still room to weigh in on how to rank relatives, and on the x-factor know as "culture": the idea that, as Dorothy Dunning says, "in the black community, we do things differently."

Walling, the lawyer for the Grossers, puts it even more bluntly: "The real social issue in this case is that Ms. Dunning is African-American and my clients are not."

When Princess was born in October 2009, the only people who knew she was alive were her mother, Javille "Angel" Sutton, and the Abbott Northwestern hospital team that delivered her.

She came into the world with cocaine in her system. Even though she was full-term, she was "significantly underweight" according to court records, and had tremors in her hands and legs from the drugs.

Sutton already had two sons, ages 4 and 12. In 2008, she had abandoned them with a relative and returned to "actively using drugs," court records show. Eventually, Hennepin County found homes for the boys with maternal aunts, one in Minnesota and one in California. These women, however, didn't have the resources to take care of the newborn Princess.

The baby's dad was Princeton Knox, the man Sutton had been living with, and the man who is Dorothy Dunning's son, the middle of her three boys. Knox first moved to Minneapolis as a teen to live with an uncle and play football for Roosevelt High School. He didn't graduate.

By the late 2000s, he started smoking crack, then selling it. He also became violent: In 2005, 2006, and 2008, three domestic assault charges were filed against him by two different women.

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