Judge declines to allow great-grandmother to adopt 2-year-old girl

02/03/2014 5:31 PM

08/06/2014 12:15 PM

A Sedgwick County District Court judge ruled Monday that a South Carolina woman is not a “fit” relative to adopt her 2-year-old great-granddaughter, who has been in a Wichita foster home since shortly after birth.

Judge Robb Rumsey also said in his decision that he was denying a request by the foster parents, Andrea and Lance Dixon, to allow them to adopt the child immediately. Nothing in the ruling, however, took the girl out of their home.

The child was ordered by the judge to remain in the custody of the Kansas Department for Children and Families until the agency finds an adoptive family. The paternal great-grandmother already has custody of the girl’s 3-year-old brother following a DCF decision in November that she be allowed to adopt both children.

In his decision, Rumsey said DCF should consider the Dixons, the child’s paternal great-uncle and other family and nonfamily members as possibilities for adoption. The great-uncle, who lives in North Carolina, has adopted the girl’s three older sisters.

Lynnette Herrman, attorney for the 67-year-old great-grandmother, said her client was “heartbroken, incredibly saddened and disappointed” by the decision.

“I’m confused how a district court judge makes a determination that a relative is not fit even though all the child-welfare professionals said she was fit,” Herrman said.

She said the great-grandmother will appeal the decision “if she can find the financial resources to do so.”

Andrea Dixon, who is executive director of FaithBuilders, could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Leah Gagne, issued an e-mailed statement through Lynn Ward, the FaithBuilders’ board president.

“We respect Judge Rumsey’s decision, and the fact that he listened carefully to testimony from multiple witnesses over six days,” Gagne said. “We have no further comment because there are other matters pending before him.”

She didn’t say what those matters were.

The ruling came after the bench trial ended Jan. 29 in juvenile court. Arguments for the best interest of the child pitted the importance of the biological family against claims of bonding with the foster family.

By law, Rumsey’s decision had to based on whether the state made a reasonable effort in finding a permanent home for the girl. He ruled that because the great-grandmother wasn’t a fit relative that the state’s efforts to place the child with her were not reasonable.

“I thought he might find that the state took too long or something,” Herrman said. “I really didn’t think he’d make a personal finding that the great-grandma wasn’t fit.”

The judge agreed that the great-grandmother was willing to take on the responsibility of a second young child and that the girl would benefit in “understanding her history, culture and race” by living with the great-grandmother.

The girl and her great-grandmother are African-American; the Dixons are white.

At the same time, Rumsey also 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.’ ”

Rumsey agreed with some of the Dixons’ claims in making his decision.

He cited the age differences between the great-grandmother and the girl, the great-grandmother’s restricted finances dictated by a fixed income and housing limitations of a two-bedroom house as reasons that made her unfit. He also noted that the boy already in her care has special needs and that she doesn’t have a driver’s license.

Rumsey also was critical of the great-grandmother’s plans to get help from a daughter who lives next door in Anderson, S.C. He noted that the daughter has health issues and was previously denied placement of two of the children by DCF.

The great-grandmother testified that she planned to move to North Carolina in 2015 to live in a larger house next to her son – the great-uncle who has adopted the three older girls – now ages 4, 5 and 6. But Rumsey said she failed to explain how she would pay for a larger house and questioned whether it was a “viable, realistic plan.”

“I guess you have to be young and have a lot of money to keep your family together,” Herrman said.

The Dixons had objected to DCF’s November decision and filed a lawsuit, claiming the child had bonded with them because she had been their foster child since two days after birth.

In an unusual move, Tim Henderson, the presiding juvenile court judge, had ordered the trial be open to the public. Names of the children and family members were not allowed to be made public.

The case had become controversial and complex because Andrea Dixon and FaithBuilders, a Wichita nonprofit that has 30 respite and foster homes, had been the target of a three-month investigation by DCF.

The probe was made public in early January, finding that DCF’s Wichita office gave preferential treatment to Dixon and her organization when it came to child placement and that she was provided with confidential information.

Nothing made public during the trial indicated Dixon received special treatment in this case. Diane Bidwell resigned as director of the Wichita office in mid-October.

Parents of all five children gave up their rights to the children in July 2012. The four oldest siblings had been placed in police protective custody in September 2011 due to allegations of physical abuse, drug use and domestic violence, according to information in the judge’s ruling.

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