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.