MN Supreme Court: Foster parents can adopt children even if relatives are able

A sharply divided Minnesota Supreme Court today ruled that two young African American girls, born to apparent drug addicts, can be adopted by their white foster parents rather than their grandparents, despite a state law that appears to favor adoption by family members over others.

The decision appeared to hinge on one word in the law: consider.

The two girls both tested positive for cocaine upon birth and have had developmental problems since. They were removed from the home almost immediately by Hennepin County and put in the care of foster parents.

Later, the foster parents agreed to adopt the girls after the grandparents initially expressed interest in the adoption, but didn’t cooperate with an in-home placement study in Mississippi. After some delay, they relented, the study was turned in, and the two competing adoption petitions went before a district court, which ruled adoption by the foster parents was in the best interest of the girls. The court said given their special needs, there could be damage by removing the girls from the only home they ever knew.

But the grandparents appealed, saying state law favors relatives over “an important friend with whom the child has resided or had significant compact.” They said the district court should have ruled they were fit to adopt, and the process should have stopped there.

But in her opinion today, Justice Lori Gildea disagreed, saying the law only requires courts to consider the adoption petition of a relative first and then the foster parents. But it does not prefer a relative over a non-relative.

“It is true that the district court did not analyze the grandparents’ petition in its entirety before turning to analyze the foster parents’ petition,” Justice Gildea wrote. “The court also did not expressly conclude in its order that it was not in the girls’ best interests to be adopted by their grandparents, which would be the better practice. But the court did consider and then form a conclusion about the grandparents’ petition with respect to each factor before considering the foster parents’ petition on that factor.”

But the grandparents are African American while the foster parents are white and the issue of tending to the “cultural needs” of adoptive children has been controversial in Minnesota and elsewhere, even though state law requires cultural needs be considered.

“The foster parents have adopted two sons who are Asian-American and African-American respectively, and an African-American friend lives with the family,” Justice Gildea said in rejecting the argument. “The district court did not specifically explain how the foster parents were able to meet the cultural needs of the children other than to find that the foster parents ‘believe that diversity is very important.’ We share the court of appeals’ concern that the district court’s findings on this factor ‘grossly simplify’ the girls’ needs… But given our deferential standard of review, we cannot say that the court’s analysis of this factor renders its overall best-interests analysis an abuse of discretion.”

But in his dissent, Justice Alan Page, joined by Justice David Stras, said Gildea’s interpretaton of the law would require courts to consider a relative’s adoption petition and a non-relative’s “side by side and at the same time,” and effectively makes the state statute “meaningless.”

“If the Legislature had intended for us to read the statute the way the concurrence suggests, there would have been no reason to require courts to consider placement in a particular order, and absolutely no reason to distinguish between relatives and others,” Justice Page wrote.

And that’s important in a case like this, Page noted, because the Legislature’s authors wrote the statute with race differences in mind. “The authors of the amendments were no doubt concerned that eliminating race as a consideration in adoptive and foster care placements might have the unintended effect of decreasing the likelihood that children from racial minorities would be adopted by relatives,” he wrote. “One way to mitigate these potential negative effects was to strengthen the statutory emphasis on placement with relatives by requiring that placement with relatives be considered before placement with others.”

Justice Wilhelmina Wright agreed with Justice Page that the district court should’ve considered the grandparents’ petition first before moving on to the foster parents’ adoption petition, but she said “the best interests of the children could not have been ascertained without consideration of the impact of the proposed move on these young children.”

Here’s today’s full decision.

  • Ralph Crammedin

    So, the white majority of the MN Supreme Court overwhelmingly determined it “in the best interest” of two black kids to be placed with white foster parents, while the black minority of the Court unanimously agreed that the black kids should be placed with their black grandparents.

    That about sums it up? Anybody else see anything desperately wrong with this whole picture? Bob?

  • Peter T

    Will the grandsparents have a visitation right? What do the adoptive parents say about this? I don’t think about the case in the framework of race, but of larger family: even if your parents fail you, the larger family should be a place where failings are buffered and a sense of belonging established. Recent studies show that those kids deal best with adversities who have heard their larger family’s story, of adversities and persistence. The court takes that away from those children. The law seems to say that the larger family is relevant, the Supreme Court that it is not – a case of legislation from the bench?

  • Bob Collins

    // That about sums it up?

    No, it does not.

    Justice Wilhelmina Wright filed a dissent AND a concurrence that did NOT conclude “the black kids should be placed with their black grandparents.”

    Also, use your real name when posting comments. It’s the rules.

  • Bob Collins

    // the Supreme Court that it is not – a case of legislation from the bench?

    Actually, I think it’s a case of sloppy legislating from the Legislature, forcing the court to try to figure out what the legislature intended with the relatively poor wording of the law.

  • BJ

    // legislation from the bench

    If you read enough court opinion and you will find that legislation from the bench is the thing the ‘bench’ (most not all) fears the most.

  • Ralph Crammedin

    ok, Bob, I’ll rephrase. So, the white majority of the MN Supreme Court overwhelmingly determined it “in the best interest” of two black kids to be placed with white foster parents, regardless of the law stating that the black grandparents’ petition should be considered first and rejected if it were unqualified, which understanding of the law was clear to the dissenting black minority of the Court, and to Justice Stras, to his credit.

    No, the legislative language isn’t particularly ‘sloppy.’ The law says the court is to consider the petitions in an order. This is plain language, and the order in this case was to first consider the grandparents’ petition. The district court, however, invented another ordering, of ‘factors,’ an ordering not mentioned in the law, and proceeded to substitute that ordering for the ordering plainly prescribed by the law.

    Justice Gildea’s opinion, and the concurring white justices, happily signed onto this judicial invention. Their opinion also ambled into an extensive but irrelevant discussion of the lower court’s ordered consideration of the facts of the case, as if to provide legal cover for ignoring their disregard for the language of the law.

    Justice Gildea’s opinion also mounts an irrelevant ramble into the language of previous statutes, again in service to the concurring white justices’ implied but never stated premise that the governing statute is ambiguous.

    Justice Gildea also opines that the statute’s requirement for order of consideration means that “… if both the relative and nonrelative petitioners are equally qualified to adopt and the best interests analysis renders an equivalent result as to each party, the relative would benefit from being considered first and could proceed with the adoption,”

    The statute makes no such statement, but this is apparently Justice Gildea’s tortured extension of the section of the law that states: “The policy of the state of Minnesota is to ensure that the child’s best interests are met by requiring an individualized determination of the needs of the child and of how the selected placement will serve the needs of the child being placed.”

    Note that the law does not require placement that will ‘best’ serve the needs of the child, only that the child’s ‘best’ interests must be served by the court ordered placement. Requiring petitioners to be ‘equally qualified’ is a tenuous construction, at best, not specified or clearly intended by the statute.

    Justice Page’s dissent addresses both the lower court’s unfortunate judicial invention and the unambiguous letter of the law, to wit: “First, the court’s interpretation ignores the express language of the statute, which requires that “placement” be considered in the specified order, not that the statutory best interest factors be considered in the specified order.”

    The facts of the case, at least those described by the lower court and presented in Justice Gildea’s opinion, do suggest the children are likely to be better off in the care of the white foster parents. But that’s not how the law is supposed to work. The statute was clear on the procedure to be followed, and the lower court obviously violated that procedure. That the white majority of the Minnesota Supreme Court was able to disregard that fact, apparently to enforce what they perceived as a greater good, is the troubling issue here.

    Race is a lens through which we view the world. Deciding that the law, which clearly states petitions are to be considered in a specified, named order, actually means that the petitions may be broken up into bite sized pieces and considered bit by bit and side by side, is a substantial leap. All but one of the white justices were able to make the leap, while both black justices strongly objected to it. Please make the case that this race-distributed division of opinion is just a coincidence.

    Most of us have moved beyond Sheriff Bull Connor’s fire hose expressions of racism, but we’ve not moved beyond race-grounded differences of opinion.

    That about sums it up?

    Oh, except for your wish to enforce ‘real’ names on the Internet. I do enjoy your persistently playing the curmudgeon, Bob. Obviously, you wish us to understand that the value of conversations here is dependent on the use of one’s ‘real’ name. To make you happy, I’ll be glad to come back with a more acceptable fake name, to allow you to pretend it’s ‘real,’ and to validate a point of view you apparently consider to be otherwise invalid.

  • Bob Collins

    //No, the legislative language isn’t particularly ‘sloppy.’ The law says the court is to consider the petitions in an order. This is plain language, and the order in this case was to first consider the grandparents’ petition.

    If you believe Justice Gildea, yes. There’s no question what the statute said. The debate is over what the legislature meant. Maybe they’re the same; maybe they’re not. I’d like to go back and listen to the floor debate on that one. I may just end up calling the author who wrote it.

    / Please make the case that this race-distributed division of opinion is just a coincidence.

    I certainly can’t but on the other hand I can’t prove that it isn’t, either. I would have liked to have seen the cultural identity issue play a more prominent role in the question before the court.

    The other issue here that only got a passing mention was the district court’s reliance on the guardian ad litem who testified that the grandmother’s using the term “she’s my blood” indicated that the grandmother looked upon her granddaughter as “a possession.”

    I’m going to guess — and it’s only a guess — that the guardian ad litem is white and did not understand the cultural meaning. So I think race played a pretty important role in the original decision.

    In any event, if you believe Justice Page, the state statute is pretty well neutered and in the future it’s going to be pretty hard for a black couple in rural Mississippi to adopt their relative children when competing against a more well-off white couple in Minnesota.

    As to the fake names, I’m not going to take the bait. I will say your argument is principled and insightful. A request to use real names — even just first names — is simply the requests we’ve always made because we find discussions tend to be better when people don’t use phony names, and because the rules apply equally to all here.

  • Ralph Crammedin

    “…the guardian ad litem who testified that the grandmother’s using the term “she’s my blood” indicated that the grandmother looked upon her granddaughter as “a possession.”

    Wow! Is my confirmation bias bias (sic) confirmed?

    Bob, yes, please dig into this one. Getting to the bottom of stuff is what you do, right?.

    As for my name, fair enough, bait respectfully withdrawn. I won’t help with your enforcement issue, though. I have important (to me) reasons to use my name. From my point of view, the quality of your blog should be self-enforcing, and usually is.

  • diane page

    Justice Page didn’t say that the relatives are entitled to placement. What he said was they were entitled to have their petition considered in the proper order and if considered in the proper order the District Court could decide within the proper order if it was in the best interest to be placed with the relatives. And if not in the best interest they could go on and further consider the other petition.

  • Lortarn

    You work all your life and pay your taxes to your government and what are you working for? You’re doing it for your children and family. Then the very government you have paid taxes to all these years takes your money to subsidize an adoption of your grandchildren your lineage destroying your family tree and robbing you of you family. Most cases you are never allowed to see them again and their names are changed. The foster parents continue to get their monthly check while you grieve every day. This is a level of corruption unheard of in previous generations Child welfare is a multi billion dollar industry living of the backs of our families. I am a grandmother, a Registered Nurse, a foster parent and a victim of child welfare corruption!

  • gale smith

    Here is my question to those who are makin this a race issue. The adoptions nd safe families act states that if a child is in statess custody 15/22 months the parent rights can be terminted. So where were these grandparents during those 15 months? Also it appears that the children had lived with thee adoptive. parent since birth, they are bonded with the only parents they know at this point. Did the grandparents come to visit and get to know the children?

    What this article says is that the grandparents were not cooperative in the assessment process. If the grandparents had been more coopertive in this process this story may have had a differant ending.

  • Lortarn

    Gale Smith I can’t say what happened in this case but I can tell you what happened in mine. I came forward right away and they told me I couldn’t have them because I lived in another state (I also have spoken to many other grandparents and aunts and if you are in the same state they come up with another reason) They said since they were working on reunification the kids had to stay. I found out their mother had an uncle about 1hr from me so I asked her if should could live there she agreed told the case worker but that was refused also. The could have sent an ICPC and done but they refused. I then hired an attorney and went for guardianship. they drug it out for over a year and then said the children had bonded. Never mind that I often had them before this for weeks a time and that we had a very strong bond they were determined to adopt them out. states get bonuses for that you know. Right now I have 3 foster children at my home I am allowed other peoples children just not my own grandchildren whom I would have taken without the large subsidy that the current foster parent are asking for. I would have done without any burden to the tax payers.

  • Cherub Mamma

    And then we have “my” kids. Grandma came forward relatively early in the case. However, lawyer after lawyer has shown why moving the children to live with Grandma is NOT in the best interests of the children.

    Grandma was a stranger to the children prior to them coming in to Care. Grandma has done NOTHING (on her own) to begin a relationship with the children. No phone calls. No letters. No birthday recognition. No holiday recognition. No communication whatsoever. She hasn’t made it to all the court hearings. And now, after the State began to fly “my” children to visit her once a month, there is valid evidence that Grandma’s home is not safe. The children have returned to me with a used drug needle in their suitcase. They were neglected and didn’t get their clothes changed one weekend. They ride around a major city without car seats. And they associate with an uncle who has warrants out for his arrest.

    The children have lived with us for 21+ months. We would take PMC. We would gladly adopt without subsidy payments. We would have an open adoption and Grandma would see the children more frequently than she ever had if she WANTED to and if the visit environment was safe. But the State will NOT consider us. They keep their head buried in the sand and continue to push forward with permanent placement with Grandma.

    And “my” children continue to languish in Care as a result.

  • Bob Collins

    We should get back to the specifics of THIS case.