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

After an hour, the arguments ended, and the two halves of the courtroom filed out into the hallway. Under a stained glass skylight, they started rehashing how it went. Both lawyers agreed that the court had asked the questions they expected, but differed on what the case could mean.

On one hand, the court could stick with the Grossers. In that case, "if they come out with a recommendation of, procedurally, how to handle these," says Walling, "that would be an excellent tool, because these cases get handled very differently all over the state."

The more major move would be if the court overturned the lower court's decision, and sided with the Dunnings. If that happened, though the justices can't touch federal rules surrounding race, there's room for them to say that "culture" should weigh more heavily.

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

"Race per se is not supposed to influence where children go, but how can we truly separate race and culture?" Perlman asks. "We're not saying that these are African-American children and so they should be in an African-American home, but part of culture is heritage."

Perlman concluded that he would expect the court's opinion to include some discussion of the culture question. But to him, the case is more about how to weigh the biological bond — whether "we're really truly going to give meaning" to the idea that kids should grow up with their kin.

Walling thinks that the court is unlikely to come down in favor of a strong relative preference.

"If they say relatives should be considered before anybody else, that would be directly contrary to two of their other cases," he says. "But that would change the outcome dramatically."

To two families, the case's implications aren't theoretical. The court's decision will determine whether or not they raise — or even know — two baby girls. It will mean, after nearly three years of suspense and fighting, that they finally have a resolution.

Both lawyers say they think the decision could go either way. In sensitive cases involving minors the court often moves more quickly, and in this case is expected to issue a decision within 90 days. At that point, Princess will be three and a half.

If the court overturns Quaintance's opinion and gives the girls to the Dunnings, the Grossers feel as though two of their daughters would be taken away.

"I just hope the Supreme Court will see that it's about two little girls, and not who they belong to," Steven says. "To think about them going away to a place where they're not going to be cared for, and mature to what they can be, that's the scariest part."

Liv agrees. "It's about the best interest of the girls, not the best interest of the relatives," she says. "There's just this undercurrent of stress that at any time they can take our kids away."

"We can't change the color of our skin," she continues. "We can go and do every single thing that we possibly could do for our kids, but we can't be black."

The Dunnings, for their part, are appealing the decision to a higher power.

"I believe in God, and there's been too much praying for us not to get these babies," Aubrey Knox says. "It's going to take a turn — it has to, because of the race issue. You can't ignore it."

His stepfather, Lawrence Dunning, agrees. "I think they finally coming home," he says.

Nearly an hour after court let out, Dorothy stepped into the elevator to leave the Minnesota Judicial Center.

"They made the fight come out in me," she said on the ride down. "Even when I get my grandkids, I will not stop coming up here. I want to fight and mobilize to put another law on the books to give relatives, and relatives out of state, a chance."

As she walked out into the bright January morning, she shivered in the cold.

"Minnesota," she said, "will not forget me." 

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