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Girl going to N.C. to live with great-uncle in DCF custody case

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, July 13, 2014, at 9:38 p.m.
  • Updated Sunday, July 13, 2014, at 10:30 p.m.

This week, a 2 1/2-year-old girl is scheduled to leave Wichita to live with her older sisters in North Carolina.

It’s expected to mark the end of a custody fight over the toddler in a case that weighed the rights of the extended biological family against those of the foster parents who have raised her since she was 2 days old.

After a Sedgwick County juvenile court judge said earlier this year that the girl’s great-grandmother in South Carolina couldn’t adopt her – a ruling that rejected a state agency’s decision – she has been adopted by her great-uncle.

He had adopted her three sisters a year ago.

“It’s been hard, it’s been rough,” said the great-uncle, a 39-year-old research scientist for a pharmaceuticals company. “But the most important thing for these kids is to be together and raised by family.”

At the request of the great-uncle, his name is not being used to protect the children’s identity.

The case has been controversial, complex and emotional.

It came at a time when the Kansas Department for Children and Families was conducting an internal investigation of its Wichita regional office as well as a nonprofit headed by the woman, Andrea Dixon of FaithBuilders, who has been seeking to adopt the girl.

Race became a topic in the trial because the Dixons are white; the girl, her siblings and biological family are black.

“Keeping this girl with her family is very important,” said Larry Burks, a vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Wichita chapter. “Cultural identities, history and traditions are made as part of the family dynamic.”

The paternal great-grandmother said much the same thing during her testimony in January when she was seeking to convince Judge Robb Rumsey that she should be allowed to adopt the girl.

Bonding

In November, the DCF said the great-grandmother could adopt the girl and her brother, who was then 3.

The boy had been in foster care with a Wichita family that also had served as foster parents to the three older sisters, then 6, 5 and 4. The great-uncle adopted the girls in July 2013 after being approved by both Kansas and North Carolina officials.

The great-grandmother, 67, came to Wichita in December and took the boy to her home in South Carolina. His little sister would have joined him, but that was stopped by the Dixons filing a lawsuit opposing the DCF’s decision.

Andrea Dixon and her husband had been the 2-year-old girl’s foster parents since shortly after her birth. They told the court that she had bonded with them, interacted with their family and called them Momma and Daddy.

Following testimony in a six-day trial that was court-ordered to be open to the public, Rumsey ruled that the great-grandmother wasn’t a fit relative to adopt the girl, citing her age and limited finances among his reasons.

Rumsey wrote in his decision that placing the girl with the great-grandmother was “overly influenced, if not controlled, by an abstract or arbitrary preference for ‘blood.’ ”

The judge also said the DCF should consider the Dixons and the great-uncle – the great-grandmother’s son – as possibilities for adoption.

The agency did just that – but not until May, because North Carolina officials first had to complete another inspection of the great-uncle’s home. One had been conducted before he adopted the three girls, but a new inspection was required because he was adding a child.

Legal requirements are there to protect the child, but they also can slow the process.

“The amount of time that lapses is very different in a child’s eyes than an adult’s eyes,” said Amy Neuman, administrator for assessment and prevention for the DCF’s Wichita office.

In mid-May, social workers and others met to discuss what they considered was best for the girl. The DCF accepted their recommendation that the great-uncle be allowed to adopt her.

The Dixons’ appeal of the choice was rejected by the DCF.

As of Friday, the Dixons hadn’t taken legal action to block the adoption by the great-uncle, according to court records.

Andrea Dixon said she was waiting on advice from an attorney on whether she should take further action.

“Do we believe it’s in (the girl’s) best interest to go? No, we don’t,” she said.

Asked to expand on that, she replied in an e-mail: “In light of what could transpire in the near future, we are choosing to say nothing further.”

Investigation

FaithBuilders was founded by Dixon in 2007 and has 30 respite and foster care homes.

In response to allegations, the DCF conducted a three-month investigation that concluded in December. The probe found the DCF’s Wichita office gave preferential treatment to Dixon and FaithBuilders when it came to child placement and provided her with confidential information.

Diane Bidwell voluntarily resigned as director of the Wichita office in mid-October. Carol Baker, a high-ranking administrator in the office, was placed on administrative leave at about the same time. She was no longer employed by the state agency as of late January, according to DCF officials.

The investigator found that Dixon “exercised unnecessary influence” over DCF placement decisions in the Wichita area. Other complaints, such as Dixon having the “power to override decisions” by other authorities, weren’t found to be true.

Placement of children with FaithBuilders’ homes was suspended during the investigation, but the group was allowed to resume taking in children.

“Our biggest problem is the perception of us,” Dixon said in November during a talk at a conference in Topeka. “They see a piece here, a piece there. We fight hard to keep kids out of the (state) system. We are fighting to help families.”

If that’s so, the great-uncle asked, “Why is she doing the total opposite? I don’t understand it.

“I understand she may have gotten attached, but that’s the deal when you do foster care.”

‘We’re family’

The breakup of the children’s family began early in their lives.

The state took custody of the four oldest children in September 2011 and of the youngest when she was born two months later, citing “extreme neglect” and abuse, according to social workers.

The mother and father gave up their parental rights to all five children in July 2012.

The great-uncle thought other family members were going to be taking the children. But as those options fell apart, he decided to adopt the three oldest girls while thinking his mother would be able to take the other two.

Soon he’ll have four girls. Next month, he’s getting married. His fiancee has been helping him raise the three oldest girls.

Plans call for the great-grandmother and the boy to move into his house by early 2016. He, his wife and the girls will live in a house he’s building about 10 minutes away.

“We’re family,” the great-uncle said.

He said the oldest three sisters – now 5, 6 and 7 – are excited to have their sister come live with them.

Twice a month, they visit with her via Skype. St. Francis Community Services, which is a state-contracted agency for handling foster care and adoption cases in the Wichita region, picks up the 2-year-old girl at the Dixons and takes her to to the St. Francis office for the Skype visits, the great-uncle said.

“They say, ‘Oh, she’s here, she’s here,’ ” the great-uncle said. “They’re always asking, ‘When is she going to come live with us? When is (their brother) going to come to see us?’ ”

Before the three oldest girls had met him and in their first phone conversation, one of the girls asked, “What’s the color of your skin?”

“They have that awareness of who they are,” said the great-uncle.

He grew up and lived in inner-city Chicago before a job transfer took him to North Carolina in 2001. He returned to school and got a college degree in biology “to start a new life.”

That transition helped make him aware of the culture shock that can hit young blacks.

“You have to learn to judge people by their character,” he said. “We had to help the girls understand that. But they also wanted to see people like them, to know where they came from.”

Adding another child to help through that process, he said, will be a joy.

“We already have three girls that age, what’s one more?” he said with a chuckle before turning serious again. “If you see these girls can be with family and you can take care of them and love them, why wouldn’t you want that?”

The great-uncle is scheduled to arrive in Wichita on Tuesday and return two days later to North Carolina with the youngest sister. The great-grandmother will be there to celebrate her 68th birthday and more.

“I would have hated for her to come to me years later when she’s a young adult,” the great-uncle said of the girl, “and say, ‘Why didn’t you fight for me?’ ”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rickplumlee.

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