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Dorothy Dunning arrives in Minneapolis on Monday, her 15th visit in three years. It's a trip Dunning can ill-afford to make, but the 52-year-old Mississippi grandmother would spend her last dime to win custody of her two biological granddaughters.
Dunning never should have had to fight this fight. But bureaucratic snafus in Minnesota and Mississippi have detoured her adoption attempt and pitted two loving families against each another: The Dunnings, with their large extended family in the South, and foster parents, Liv and Steven Grosser, of Plymouth, who have raised the girls since birth and don't want to give them up.
An oral argument in the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Tuesday will strongly influence the outcome.
Wright Walling, the Grossers' attorney, who answered questions on the couple's behalf, calls the case "very complex." Dunning's attorney, Barbara Kueppers, is more blunt. "It's fraught with bureaucratic screw-ups," she said, including Minnesota's blunder in not conducting a family search on the paternal side, and an alarming lack of communication between the two states.
"I thought it was going to be easy," said Dunning, visiting her granddaughters, now 2 1/2 and 21 months old, in April. "But it's been a nightmare."
Dunning, the widowed mother of three sons and eight other grandchildren, lives in Gautier, Miss., with her second husband, Lawrence. She's candid that her middle son, Princeton, got into drug trouble when he moved to the Twin Cities, and had several protection orders filed against him. "I couldn't believe that was my son," Dunning said, "But I never gave up on him."
In October 2009, Princeton's girlfriend gave birth in Hennepin County to a girl, born with cocaine in her system. Social services placed the baby with the Grossers, but the girlfriend lied to Princeton, telling him the baby was with her sister.
No family search was done, although kinship searches on both sides are mandated within 30 days after a child's removal from parents. Dunning's son, Aubrey, the father of four children, lives in St. Paul. Dunning's brother lives in Lake Elmo.
In December 2009, Dunning got the couple into drug treatment in Mississippi and learned where her granddaughter was. She immediately contacted Hennepin County to express her desire to adopt. Despite multiple calls to and from the county, Dunning's request was not recorded until the following March, when Dunning learned the girlfriend was pregnant again. Dunning expressed her desire to adopt this baby, too.
The second girl also had cocaine in her system. Both parents' rights were terminated and, in April 2010, Dunning began to adopt, supported by both states and the girls' parents. A home study and criminal background check were conducted. A delay occurred when she found out that Lawrence, too, needed to be cleared. But the couple were unaware that Mississippi was not sending status updates to Minnesota.
In December 2010, Minnesota, frustrated at the lack of communication, withdrew its request for Dunning and asked the Grossers to adopt the girls. Dunning was devastated.
The Grossers filed to adopt the girls on March 17, 2011, and began a three-bedroom home addition. Dunning filed to adopt on April 12, 2011. Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance ruled in favor of the Grossers last September. Quaintance said she couldn't talk about a case before the Court of Appeals, but a review of the adoption order suggests the judge was swayed by the girls' strong attachment to the Grossers.
"Although the Dunnings appear to be wonderful people, there are certainly concerns anytime children are moved from one home to another," the order read in part, "especially at such young ages and after being with the same foster parents since birth."
Walling, the Grossers' attorney, agrees. "Moving them," he said, "would be permanently detrimental."
The Grossers are clearly loving foster parents to the girls, and to four biological children, two other adopted children and one friend of their daughter, who lives with them. But Dunning was kept from seeing the girls until the county threw its support her way in April 2011.
While the Grossers are white and Dunning is African-American, Dunning doesn't see this as a case about race. Others do. "It's a grave injustice," said Chester McCoy, a member of the Minnesota Association of Black Social Workers. "For black people, you keep family. You stay in contact with family."
Kueppers also favors family. "We believe that the short-term pain [of separation] is a small price to pay for these children to be able to grow up within the culture of this extended family and the benefits that family brings."
Dunning has dozens of relatives within walking distance of her home. "When all my other grandkids come over and get all around me, I get sick to my stomach," she said. "They never leave my mind."
I don't doubt that a transition to Mississippi would be heart-wrenching for the Grossers, but it is the right transition, as officials in Minnesota and Mississippi initially concluded. The court would be wise to work quickly to end this painful process for all parties so that healing can begin.