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

By the end of September, Princess had a new biological sister. Knox had gotten Sutton pregnant again, and she gave birth at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. The new baby was born with cocaine in her system, as well as marijuana. Though she later indicated she wanted her to be named Dorothy, after her grandmother, Sutton left the hospital without naming her fourth child. The girl's birth certificate reads "Baby Girl Sutton."

Within days of the new baby's arrival, Liv Grosser drove to the hospital to bring her home. Asked by the county to choose a name, the Grossers decided on Hannah. Today, it is the only name the two-year-old knows.

Meanwhile, the county was still trying to place the two sisters with relatives. State law required that the county decide on a permanent option for children within six months of entering the system. For Princess, it had now been a year.

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

In December 2010, Hennepin County asked the Grossers to adopt both sisters, and the family agreed. The Grossers began building an addition on their house to provide bedrooms for the girls, and looked into opening accounts to save for their college educations.

Not long after, Liv Grosser asked the case worker if the family could include the girls in their family Christmas card photo. The county told her it wasn't a good idea before the girls were officially adopted, according to the case notes. Grosser said she understood, even though "we feel like they are part of our family."

On a recent afternoon, Dorothy Dunning sat down near a fountain at the Ridgedale Center mall in Minnetonka, where she had just finished visitation with her granddaughters. She smiled as she talked about seeing them.

The girls seemed good, Dunning said: They were happy and running around.

"But they hair was matted," she says, pointing at pictures she had taken of the girls' heads. "In the black community, if I let my children go around with hair like that, I would be considered an unfit grandmother."

When Princess was born, Dunning had never been on a plane. She has lived in Gautier, Mississippi, for 25 years, and grew up in a neighboring town. But when she traveled to Minnesota in April 2011 to meet her granddaughters for the first time, she flew.

Since then, she says she has made the trip "I would guess about 20 times." She takes time off from her job cleaning homes and offices and mostly flies, although occasionally she has made the 22-hour drive.

On many of those trips, she has been able to get unsupervised visitation with her granddaughters. At one point, she was even allowed to spend the day with them at a nearby relative's house.

Her last few visits, however, have been limited to a few hours at Ridgedale Center.

"This mall is the only place they'll let me see them," Dunning says.

Aside from an indoor playground, "there's nothing to do here," Dunning complains. "It's not like having them at home where they're laughing with the other grandkids and laying up in my arms, and where I'm hugging and nurturing and loving."

The Dunnings live in a three-bedroom home, and Dorothy's gardening has won the "Yard of the Month" award from the local garden club. She has 11 other grandkids, and she herself is one of 18 brothers and sisters, most of whom still live close by in Mississippi. The entire clan — plus all of their spouses and kids and cousins and grandkids — regularly gathers at Dunning's mother's house.

"Most every day," she says. "That's what these grandbabies are missing out on."

When Princess was born, Dunning didn't know. She didn't know about her new granddaughter until after her son Aubrey went to check on Princeton, and saw him in the garage.

"I heard Princeton on crack," she remembers, "and my world ended."

Dunning sent her son a bus ticket. When he showed up in Mississippi, his girlfriend, Sutton, was accompanying him.

"They told me they had had a baby," Dunning remembers, "but that the baby was with [Sutton's] sister, so I figured I would get them in rehab first and then go up and get the baby."

Dunning enrolled her son and Sutton in an outpatient program. But after about a week, Knox and Sutton got into a fight.

"That's when she told him that the baby wasn't with her sister, but was in the system," Dunning says.

When the couple later told Dunning, she says, "My heart about sunk."

First thing Monday morning — December 2, 2009, per the records — Dunning called Hennepin County. Princess was two months old.

If her son was the father, Dunning told the case worker on the other end of the line, "I want to do everything to get her in my care," according to the worker's notes.

First, though, the county had to determine that her son was the dad. Minnesota law requires the county to search for relatives on both sides of the family. But often in these cases, it's hard to figure out who the father is: Children are usually in the care of the mother or her relatives when the county first steps in, and either she won't say who the father is or doesn't know his whereabouts.

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