Closing arguments split on child’s best interest in adoption case

01/29/2014 3:00 PM

08/06/2014 12:15 PM

Closing arguments in a trial about whether a 2-year-old girl should be adopted by her Wichita foster parents or by a great-grandmother were largely divided over what was in the child’s best interest.

The attorney for foster parents Andrea and Lance Dixon argued that kinship shouldn’t be the dominating reason for the judge to allow the paternal great-grandmother in South Carolina to adopt the girl.

“Family and blood should not be the trump card,” Leah Gagne said Wednesday in Sedgwick County juvenile court. “If the court relies only on family and blood, that can be a reason for the court of appeals to send it back.”

Attorneys for the state, the girl and the great-grandmother said federal and state laws and Kansas Department for Children and Families’ policy all give preference to family in adoptions.

But they added that in this case, the best interest of the girl also was being served by going to the great-grandmother, where the child would live with her 3-year-old brother and within hours of three older sisters who have been adopted by a great-uncle.

Lynnette Herrman, attorney for the great-grandmother, drew the analogy of an artist painting a tree.

“It can be beautiful,” she said, “but it’s not the tree as (the great-grandmother and great-uncle) and the siblings are the tree. They are the family tree.”

Juvenile cases are normally closed to the public. But Tim Henderson, the administrative judge for juvenile court, ordered this bench trial to be open.

The case has been a controversial and complex because Andrea Dixon is the head of FaithBuilders, a Wichita nonprofit that helps children and families and operates 30 respite and foster care homes.

DCF recently completed a three-month investigation that concluded its Wichita regional office gave preferential treatment to Dixon and her organization when it came to child placements and that she was provided with confidential information. Nothing indicated Dixon received special treatment in this case.

Diane Bidwell resigned as director of the Wichita office in mid-October.

Closing arguments came after six days of testimony were heard this month. Litigation began in June, when the Dixons requested that the court allow them to adopt the girl.

Gagne said the great-grandmother wants to adopt the girl “out of duty to family. The Dixons want to adopt on the basis of their love of (the girl).”

Michael Lazzo, the girl’s court-appointed guardian, told Judge Robb Rumsey that it was important to cut through the emotional issues in making a decision.

“It’s a hurtful thing for the Dixons,” Lazzo said, “but it’s in the best interest of (the girl). The bond to the Dixons doesn’t trump her bond to the siblings and (great-grandmother).

“She doesn’t have that bond with (the relatives) now that she has with the Dixons, but it will be. There’s no stronger bond than family relationships. In time, the Dixons will recognize it’s the right thing for (the girl).”

The boy and girl are the youngest of five siblings, all from the same parents. Their mother and father were both in their late 20s when they gave up their parental rights in July 2012.

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

Andrea Dixon testified that she and FaithBuilders had been helping the family for two years prior to that time. The youngest child has been the Dixons’ foster child since she was 2 days old.

The boy and the three older sisters – now 4, 5 and 6 – were in a separate Wichita foster care home, which has been identified as one of the foster homes operated by FaithBuilders families. A paternal great-uncle living in North Carolina adopted the girls in July.

On Nov. 4, a review committee made up of people who had knowledge of the situation – social workers, Lazzo, the boy’s foster mother – decided that the boy and girl should be kept together and adopted by the great-grandmother.

DCF approved that decision, but the Dixons challenged it.

While presenting her case and in closing arguments, Gagne argued that the girl didn’t have a bond with her other siblings and that the Dixons were the only family she had known.

She also raised concerns about the great-grandmother’s age of 67 and financial ability to take care of two children on a fixed income.

“When (the girl) is 12, she’ll be 77,” Gagne said. “(The girl) deserves the right to grow up to her full potential.”

Plans call for the great-grandmother to move to North Carolina in 2015 to live next to her son, the great-uncle who has adopted the three girls, Herrman reminded the court.

Lazzo noted that the Dixons twice rejected requests that they adopt the girl before changing their minds when asked a third time in late 2012.

“It’s only when they bonded with her that they wanted to adopt,” he said. “The only persons who have said the Dixons were better for (the girl) are the Dixons.”

Race and cultural history have been a issue in the case. The Dixons are white and the girl and her family are black. The great-grandmother and others testified that it was important the girl be placed where she could grow up learning about black history.

A federal law prevents race or national origin from being a basis for denying adoption, Gagne said.

Closing arguments also addressed whether DCF made a “reasonable” effort in handling the case. Herrman argued that the law says the judge has to find the effort unreasonable before he can get to the best interest issue.

She said Henderson had previously denied motions by the Dixons that the state had not made reasonable efforts to get the children into permanent homes.

“No evidence has been presented that the previous judge was wrong,” Herrman said.

Gagne said the state didn’t meet the reasonable standard because it didn’t look at the best interest of the child.

Rumsey said he will give the attorneys a written decision before 9 a.m. Feb. 5, or he will give it in open court at that time.

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