Cultural history cited as great-grandmother testifies in adoption case

Sedgwick County District Court’s juvenile court building
Sedgwick County District Court’s juvenile court building The Wichita Eagle

The importance of cultural history has emerged as one of the issues in a dispute over the adoption of a 2-year-old girl.

The topic came up this week during a trial in Sedgwick County juvenile court, where FaithBuilders’ founder and her husband are trying to adopt the child despite the state’s recommendation that she go to her paternal great-grandmother.

Andrea Dixon, executive director of the Wichita nonprofit that helps children, and her husband are white; the great-grandmother and the child are African-American.

“There are a lot of things in our history that we should be proud of – just like a lot of things in your history you should be proud of,” the 67-year-old great-grandmother said during questioning by attorney Michael Lazzo, the girl’s court-appointed guardian. “It’s more than race.

“When you adopt a child not of your race, you should teach them about their race.”

The great-grandmother also talked about the importance of knowing how to take care of the hair of a black girl. Andrea Dixon testified earlier that she has African-American friends who can help her teach the child about black culture.

Leah Gagne, Dixon’s attorney, later asked the great-grandmother, “Do you think white families shouldn’t adopt black children?”

“I didn’t say that,” she said. “I said teach them the child’s history, whether it’s Italian or German. It doesn’t matter if the child is black, white or pink.”

No one has testified so far that it would be bad if either the Dixons or the great-grandmother adopted the child.

The Dixons have been the foster parents for the girl since she was 2 days old and say she has a strong bond with them. The great-grandmother is a biological family member, says she believes strongly in family and has already adopted the girl’s 3-year-old brother.

“It’s about two good choices,” Lazzo said during his opening statement earlier this month.

A ‘family thing’

The trial began Jan. 7. Hearings resumed this week and will continue Monday. Three or four more witnesses are expected to testify before Judge Robb Rumsey.

The Dixons are challenging a Nov. 4 recommendation by the Kansas Department for Children and Families that the great-grandmother be allowed to adopt the girl. That same decision by the state agency also recommended that the great-grandmother adopt the 3-year-old brother.

The great-grandmother came to Wichita in mid-December to take the boy to her home in Anderson, S.C.

The boy had lived with another foster care family in Wichita, along with his three older sisters – ages 4, 5 and 6. The three girls were adopted in July by their great-uncle who lives in North Carolina. He is the son of the great-grandmother.

A sibling split was approved by DCF for the adoption of the three girls, but a split wasn’t approved for the two younger children, according to testimony by social workers.

Martin Helget, adoption director at St. Francis Community Services, the state-contracted agency that oversees DCF’s region that includes Wichita, testified Friday that the split was allowed because the great-uncle couldn’t take all five children.

No one in Wichita was seeking to adopt the boy, social workers have testified.

Lynnette Herrman, attorney for the great-grandmother, asked her client why she thought the two younger children should stay together.

“It’s a family thing,” said the great-grandmother, who has five children, 21 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. “I believe in family. I believe we should all work together when we have problems.

“We should come together, surround the kids with the love and understanding that they would need.”

Health, finances

The great-grandmother said she dropped out of high school so she could care for her son. She was married twice and is a widow.

In 2012, she said, she dropped out of consideration for adopting the children because her ailing mother had come to live with her. After her mother died in January 2013, she said she told Kansas officials she wanted again to be an adoption resource.

“I couldn’t do both,” the great-grandmother testified. “I had my mom. I wasn’t going to neglect my mom for nothing.”

Gagne raised questions about her health and financial resources.

The great-grandmother, a former nurse’s assistant who grew up in Chicago before moving to South Carolina in 2011, said her only ailment is arthritis in a knee. She said she has plenty of energy.

“I’m an early riser, up at 4 or 5,” she said. “I read my Bible. When (the boy) gets up, I close my Bible and it’s his time.”

The great-grandmother said her fixed income is sufficient to care for the children. She said she receives Social Security and an adoption subsidy of $500 monthly for the boy. She would receive an additional adoption subsidy for the girl.

Her only debt is $342 on a bedroom set, she said. “I don’t have a credit card,” she said.

Her daughter, who lives next door, would assist in caring for the children, she said, although her plans are to move to North Carolina in 2015 to live next to her son – the great-uncle who has the three older girls.

Parental rights for all five children were surrendered in July 2012. Dixon has testified that the 2-year-old girl was born with drugs in her system.

The great-grandmother said her grandson – the boy’s father – gave up his parental rights because he thought all the children would be adopted by family.

Future relationships

Regardless of who adopts the girl, the trial has addressed whether the litigation has soured the relationship between Andrea Dixon and the great-grandmother. If the Dixons are allowed to adopt the girl, questions were raised as to whether she would be allowed to stay in touch with her brother.

When the great-grandmother came to Wichita to pick up the boy, she also visited with the boy’s foster family and saw the 2-year-old girl. The foster mother testified that the great-grandmother called Andrea Dixon a snake.

The great-grandmother acknowledged she made that comment.

“When you find a person smiling in your face and then doing things behind your back,” she testified, “that’s a snake.”

She said she drew that conclusion for several reasons, including after learning FaithBuilders’ website said the group “is focused on family preservation and we believe it is best in most cases for children to return to and remain with their biological family.”

She said she also learned that FaithBuilders, which provides goods and services to families and has 30 respite and foster care homes, had been under investigation by DCF.

Dixon and FaithBuilders were the subject of a three-month investigation by the state agency that was made public Jan. 13.

The probe concluded that staff members of DCF’s regional office in Wichita provided Dixon with confidential information about children. It also said the office gave her preferential treatment in child placement decisions.

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

Mike Myers, Kansas City regional director, served as interim director in Wichita until early January. He signed off on DCF’s orders that the great-grandmother be allowed to adopt the boy and girl.

Dixon’s motion before the court claims that DCF didn’t make “reasonable” placement in making its decision.

Tim Henderson, the presiding juvenile court judge, has ordered that the children and their family members not be identified publicly.

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