They say that love is blind, and that love between a mother and child is unconditional. But when it comes to adoptions, some say it has also become color-coded.
That's at the heart of a Blaine case in which a white adoptive mother has accused Anoka County officials of trying to block her adoption of a biracial baby.
Melissa Becker did win custody of LaMya Mikulak-Rowe, eventually. But it nearly broke her, and she has filed a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights, alleging that the county cost her tens of thousands of dollars because they wanted to place LaMya with a black family.
LaMya spent the first 14 months of her life on the streets, moving from home to home, from shelter to crisis nursery, as her teen mother struggled with homelessness.
Today, LaMya lives in a quiet, tidy neighborhood with Becker. The living room teems with African-American Barbie dolls. From a toy microphone, she likes to sing Taylor Swift songs. Sometimes her birth mother, Shawnte Mikulak, comes to visit or have a barbecue, part of a new extended family that seems to have found peace.
But it was a long and contentious ordeal. Becker and her lawyer say her case is not unusual, that social workers often ignore law changes that say race cannot be a factor in adoptions, and that blood relations is only one element to consider in placing a child.
"The trump card is always what's best for the child," said Mark Fiddler, Becker's lawyer.
Deena McMahon, an expert on child attachment issues hired by Becker, said that Anoka County has been struggling to place children of color in similar families.
"The racial disparity is hard to fix," said McMahon, whose report concluded that Becker, a nurse, would be the perfect mother for LaMya, who has special needs. "They saw this as a chance to look good, but you can't balance the system on the back of this little girl."
LaMya was placed with Becker in October 2007 after her mother called police and said she couldn't care for her daughter. Becker fell in love with LaMya, and they bonded. She spent months getting the child physical and psychological help.
Seven months later, Mikulak said she preferred to have her daughter go to a black family. In June 2008, LaMya's great- aunt, Yolanda Rowe, offered to take LaMya to Tennessee. A fierce legal battle ensued, with Anoka County taking the side of Rowe.
"I really respect Yolanda for stepping up and trying to keep her family together," said Becker. LaMya was showing progress, but still had many psychological and developmental issues.
LaMya is biracial, but the court allowed her ethnicity to be changed to African-American because her mother (who is also biracial) identifies herself as such.
McMahon did an attachment assessment and said that while Rowe was a good person, "she was not ready to be able to take care of someone with LaMya's needs." Yet another move would be "catastrophic."
While social workers privately told her they thought she would offer the best home for LaMya, the county and state officials fought. Notes Becker kept say caseworkers frequently talked about race.
"They said it was all about me and that I was being selfish," said Becker. "But I was doing what I thought was right for LaMya."
"We are still practicing race-trumps-everything," said McMahon. "I have sided with birth families in other cases, but Melissa's case was easy, and so unnecessary."
And, Fiddler contends, illegal.
Tom Haluska, assistant Anoka County attorney, said privacy concerns limit his comments. "As far as I'm aware, Anoka County has not discriminated against anyone," he said.
The great-aunt ultimately was laid off from her job, became pregnant and discontinued her rights to custody. Becker invited LaMya's birth family to be part of her upbringing. Last month, Rowe came up for a large family picnic. Mikulak sees her daughter monthly.
"The positive side is, I'm part of the family now," said Becker. "We are a different kind of family, and that doesn't happen much in foster care. I don't blame the birth family for fighting to keep LaMya, but I do blame Anoka County and the state."
Attorney Fiddler said race is often a factor, but foster and adoptive parents are afraid to complain.
"There is payback," he said. "Social workers have so much discretion in where a child is placed."
"These kids need a fierce advocate" and got one in Becker, said Fiddler. "How can you be too much of an advocate for a child?"
The federal Office of Civil Rights has investigated hundreds of similar cases nationwide. In one Ohio instance, they found that a white adoptive parent's rights were violated and fined the county agency $1.8 million.
Becker, who built an addition onto her house so she could take in more foster kids or adopt again, thinks she is already being punished for filing a discrimination complaint. In 18 months, she has had no referrals.
Anoka County recently conducted a placement evaluation of Becker. While most of it was glowing ("Melissa went above and beyond to meet LaMya's needs"), the very same people who labored to block her adoption said she "was frustrated with agency policies and procedures and often challenged them."
On the question of whether they would recommend use of her again as a foster parent, they checked the box that said "no" but declined to offer an explanation.
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