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

In 2009, his older brother, Aubrey Knox, got a call at his job in Mississippi: His brother's situation had gotten worse. Worried, Aubrey traveled to Minnesota.

Aubrey remembers seeing the Minneapolis "crack house" where his brother lived with Sutton, along with several "prostitutes" and another man.

Aubrey stayed with them for a week, trying to talk his brother into coming home and getting clean. Then, one morning, he walked into the house's garage to find an awful surprise.

Justice Wilhelmina Wright asked several of the sensitive questions about race
Jayme Halbritter
Justice Wilhelmina Wright asked several of the sensitive questions about race

"I saw a body there in the corner of this place filled with garbage, and I thought it was dead," Aubrey says. "Then I walked over and saw it was my brother."

"I went out front and I called my mom," Aubrey continues. "That's when I really just broke down."

Today, Princeton is sober and married with kids, but he has never laid eyes on the children he conceived with Sutton.

"It's too much for him," Aubrey says. "He don't talk about it."

Once doctors detected drugs, they couldn't legally give the mother her baby. Sutton left her newborn at the hospital and the Hennepin County Department of Human Services was called in to find a foster family.

When Princess was just four days old, Liv Grosser came to the hospital to pick her up.

"She was very small — about five pounds even though she was full-term, very skinny, very dry-skinned, tense, shaky," Liv remembers. "She had that high-pitched cry you hear from babies who have been exposed to cocaine, and didn't make eye contact. She seemed fragile."

"She looked like a little bird," Steven recalls.

That night, the baby went to sleep in a bassinet in the Grossers' bedroom.

A week later, when a child protective services worker visited the Grossers in Plymouth, Liv answered the door with the baby asleep in her arms.

Grosser told the case worker about their first week together, and how they were starting to settle into a routine. The baby would sleep for five hours each night, but would wake up for two-hour periods, so Liv would sit with her. She loved to be held, Liv said, and mentioned that she had noticed Princess jittering as she went through withdrawal from the cocaine.

Liv and the social worker talked about which of the baby's relatives might be able to take her, and the case notes show that Grosser wanted the baby to be reunited with her parents. She knew she was a foster parent, and that the situation was only temporary.

The Grossers first became foster parents in August 2008. They did it because the religious and family-oriented couple felt a sense of duty, a desire to give back.

"We didn't do this because we wanted more kids," Liv explains. "We wanted to help the moms — we wanted to help the kids. We wanted to help."

The Grossers' first foster child was reunited with his parents after four months, and they later adopted their second foster child after the boy's birth parents requested it. Princess joined that boy, an African-American child not much older than her. There were also the four biological Grosser children, ages 8 to 18, as well as a son adopted from China and a teenage friend who lived with the family.

Steven Grosser went off to work as the CFO of a media company every day, and Liv Grosser — who has a master's degree in Christian counseling — stayed home with the kids and volunteered at church.

"The family has a more-than-satisfactory income," a case worker wrote in their home study. "Their finances will in no way be impacted by the foster care payments."

The weekend after Thanksgiving, the Grossers brought Princess with them to their cabin north of Brainerd. In early December, Liv reported that the baby was "very sweet and easy going," according to case notes, and by early January 2010, Grosser told her case worker that if the baby's relatives didn't work out, the Grossers would like to adopt her.

The county continued to look into relative options, but when there was still no progress by the end of April, Grosser began to worry that the baby was growing attached.

By May, Princess had four teeth. In June, she could stand, clap, giggle, and "scoot around on her tummy," case notes describe. In both months, Grosser talked with the case worker about preparing herself for the foster child to leave.

In July, Grosser was nursing Princess through teething pains, and the baby was trying solid foods. Grosser again voiced concerns — at this point shared by Princess's pediatrician — that after eight months, moving Princess out of the Grosser home "will cause permanent attachment problems."

"She was bonding all the time, like babies do, but I started getting more concerned as she started to be more aware," Liv remembers. "At nine months, she was coming to be a person and wondering, 'Who's my family?' To her, I was mom."

Nine months stretched into 11. Princess had started walking and chattering, calling Liv and Steven "mama" and "dada." She regularly sat and looked at books with the Grossers' young adopted son as the two grew close, like any siblings.

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