One thing we can say about Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson’s memorable remark regarding the state’s highest profile custody case in years is that it’s an apt metaphor. But maybe not in the way he intended.
In deciding who should raise a pair of toddler sisters at the heart of a two-year adoption dispute between the girls’ foster parents and their paternal grandparents, Anderson concluded that the Legislature offers a simple scheme, similar to what we tell children learning to cross the street.
“First look left, and then look right,” Justice Anderson wrote in his concurring opinion in the 5-2 decision favoring foster parents Liv and Steve Grosser of Plymouth over grandparents Dorothy and Lawrence Dunning of Mississippi.
Relatives should be considered first, by looking left, Anderson said, but there isn’t a reason to not also look right toward other parties in deciding what’s best for a child.
Nobody questions the Grossers’ genuine love of and devotion to the two girls, ages 3 and 2, who were born with cocaine in their systems and placed with the foster family shortly after their births.
But those of us rooting for the Dunnings — whom nobody from Minnesota to Mississippi deemed unfit to raise them — also are turning left, right, then left again, shaking our heads at the high court’s troubling implication.
Yes, we value family bonds, the majority seems to be saying. Just not enough to prioritize capable kin over capable others.
“The look left-look right analogy would fail the LSAT, ” said Michael Friedman, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Legal Rights Center, “unless we’re talking about a one-way street with the cars coming from the left. Foster parents should not have a lane of traffic equal to a grandparent.”
In his 12-page dissent, Justice Alan Page said much the same. (Justice David Stras also dissented, as did Justice Wilhelmina Wright, in part.) By allowing courts to evaluate and analyze competing adoption petitions from relatives and “important friends” side-by-side, Page wrote, the Legislature’s use of the words “in the following order” is rendered “effectively meaningless and superfluous.”
Our lawmakers, Page wrote, recognized the “important and powerful role that family plays in human relationships and the development of the human species. In requiring that a relative’s petition be considered first, the Legislature sought to protect the family bond to the extent that it was not inconsistent with the child’s best interests.”
Dunning, a 53-year-old widow with three sons and eight other grandchildren, lives in Gautier, Miss., with her second husband. She’s made more than 20 trips to the Twin Cities in her attempt to adopt her granddaughters, leaving her $175,000 in debt.
“I owe so many lawyers,” she said, “I owe so many people. The sad thing is that all of this could have been avoided.”
Dunning’s 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 told me last year, “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 without conducting a mandated family search. Dunning’s son, Aubrey, the father of four children, lives in St. Paul. Dunning’s brother lives in Lake Elmo.
A few months later, 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.
Her adoption request for the two girls was supported by both states and the girls’ parents. But bureaucratic snafus in Mississippi slowed the process, leaving Minnesota to incorrectly assume that Dunning was no longer interested in adopting.
In December 2010, Minnesota withdrew its request for Dunning and asked the Grossers to adopt the girls. The Grossers, already parents to seven children including two other adopted children and a friend of their daughter, filed to adopt the girls in March 2011, and began a three-bedroom home addition. A devastated Dunning filed to adopt a month later. Hennepin County Judge Kathryn Quaintance ruled in favor of the Grossers in September 2011, swayed by the girls’ strong attachment to the Grossers. The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld that decision.
Dunning’s lawyer, Michael Perlman, fears this ruling means that relatives will always start out with one hand tied behind their backs, “because foster parents will have an advantage due to the simple fact that they have been caring for the children for a considerable time before the court makes a decision.”
Page concurred, troubled, for example, that the grandparents were criticized for not fully acknowledging the girls’ “special needs” (although testing revealed that neither child qualified for services). These long-distance grandparents, Page noted, “are rarely able to spend any time with the children, which would understandably account for a less-detailed knowledge” of their needs, he said.
Page questioned, too, how the decision about “better” is made. Affluence? Better education? And what role do culture and race play? The Dunnings and the girls are African-American. The Grossers are white.
Dunning isn’t waiting for an answer on that. This grandmother will be back in Minneapolis for a rally April 22. And she’s exploring taking her case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“The system is broken,” she said. “This isn’t over by a long shot.”