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

Even if Dunning hadn't called, at some point the county should have contacted her. By calling them first, she bypassed that step. But Princeton would still have to take a paternity test.

This didn't happen for three months. Results came back 99.99 percent positive that Princeton was the father, and Minnesota moved to ask Mississippi to investigate the Dunnings' as a possible home for the girls.

But when cases such as this cross state lines, they often get messy.

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

"The child welfare system is very, very complicated already," says LaLiberte, from the U of M. "You throw in interstate issues, and it is compounded."

Minnesota's only choice was to send Mississippi what's known as the "interstate compact in the placement of children," or ICPC. Mississippi was then supposed to run a preliminary check for things like criminal history within 30 days. If that cleared, the state would assign a case worker of its own and tell Minnesota that it had begun the process of licensing the Dunnings: doing a home study, fingerprinting them, and signing them up for training classes.

By April, Minnesota sent out the request, and started talking to the Grossers about the Dunnings as a possible placement for the girls.

But then, nothing happened. Two months later, Minnesota still hadn't heard anything from Mississippi, not even on the preliminary check.

The case worker kept telling Liv Grosser, "We expect to hear soon."

Dunning, too, was growing restless: She called Minnesota three times in the first half of 2010, records show.

By the end of June, Minnesota checked with Mississippi, and inquired twice more in July. Still nothing.

Throughout August, Mississippi told Minnesota that the girls' grandfather, Lawrence Dunning, wasn't cooperating — he didn't want to confirm his social security number or take the two mandatory parenting classes.

Dorothy Dunning would later say that this was a misunderstanding. She married Lawrence when her first husband died. Since he wasn't the girls' biological relative, he thought he didn't have to take the classes. By the time he realized the mistake, they weren't offered again for months.

Hearing about the delays from their case workers, the Grossers began to worry that Dunning wasn't really interested.

"Nothing was happening," Steven says. "We were in a hold pattern and getting increasingly concerned."

Everyone was growing frustrated. Dunning called Minnesota two more times that month, then again in September, and three times in October — not including the calls she was making to Mississippi.

At the end of October — five months after Minnesota had sent Mississippi the compact — a Hennepin County case worker finally got through to Mississippi and learned that, though Lawrence Dunning had now completed classes and been fingerprinted, the state had yet to even assign a case worker to start on the home study.

Not long after, one of Minnesota's administrators emailed Mississippi a threatening message: "We're at the point with this request that we may be requesting a review at the federal level regarding the delays and lack of response."

By now, Dunning was angry. She didn't understand the delay. It seemed, she says, like they were deliberately keeping her away from her own family.

"These are my grands," she says. "Once I tell Minnesota that, and I can provide for them and love them, why wouldn't they give them back to me?"

Aubrey Knox says that the system was confusing to his mother.

"You seen that movie The Help?" he asks. "That's my mom. She's been working since she was 14. She didn't really go to school, she didn't understand all this. But she wasn't just going to walk away."

At the end of November 2010, Minnesota withdrew its compact request to Mississippi. In December, Hennepin County asked the Grossers to adopt both girls.

In January 2011, Dunning again called Hennepin County to ask what was happening. The county case worker explained that, because of the delays and the need to decide on a permanent home for the girls, Minnesota had withdrawn its request.

"Ms. Dunning asked if this means she cannot adopt her grandchildren," the case worker wrote in her notes. "I said that was correct. She got upset again and raised her voice saying she has done everything she was asked."

Dunning began to yell, according to the case worker, and "told me to listen good and that her son may be a crack head, but he does not come from crack heads."

Dunning remembers the exchange.

"I told her, 'Even if I have to sell everything I own, I will fight tooth and nail and I will get my grandkids,'" Dunning recounts.

Then, the case worker's notes conclude, Dunning hung up.

Not long after the phone call, Mississippi finally sent Minnesota a home study for the Dunnings. Hennepin County, though, reassured the Grossers that they were still on track to adopt, and was actively working with the family to make it happen.

In March — a full three months after the county asked the Grossers to raise the girls — Liv Grosser got a call from one of the adoption workers on the eve of a routine state ward review hearing.

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