Latonia vs. Chisago County: Appeals Court Rules System Did Not Violate Law

Minnesota Judicial Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo: PDI Design Group

Latonia Rolbiecki, a Minnesota woman who has been trying to adopt her grandson from foster care, has lost her case before the state appeals court. The decision paves the way for the child to be adopted by his foster parents, John and Avery Bird. 

The three-judge panel took issue with some of the reasons that Chisago County Health and Human Services (CCHHS) continued to keep the child in foster care, even as it told Rolbiecki she was a candidate to care for him. But ultimately, the appeals court ruled that the agency and the district court had not violated state law. 

“We understand grandmother’s frustration with and concern over the lengthy procedural history of this case,” said the decision issued this week. But the county did not “abuse its discretion” in the way it scheduled hearings on permanency, nor in how it decided that the child’s best interests were served by his foster parents adopting him.

“My heart is so broken,” Rolbiecki told The Chronicle of Social Change, in an interview the day after the decision. “There has never been any safety concern. Nobody ever, in any of this, said he was in harms’ way with me. So what is the problem?”

Joanna Woolman, one of Rolbiecki’s attorneys, said in an email that she was “disappointed” by the court’s ruling. Fellow attorney Natalie Netzel said that Rolbiecki does intend to file a petition for review with the Minnesota Supreme Court.

[The Chronicle of Social Change covered Rolbiecki’s efforts to adopt T.R. in a series on our website. Click here to read.]

Rolbiecki’s grandson, identified as T.R. in the case, was taken into foster care at birth in April of 2016, suffering from prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol. His parents’ rights have been terminated. 

The boy’s foster parents, John and Avery Bird, told the Chisago County Health and Human Services department in 2017 that they would be interested in adopting him. In 2018, the couple signed an adoption agreement with the county. 

But since her grandson was born, Rolbiecki has been following steps laid out by Chisago County to bring her grandson home. The African-American grandmother was never considered as an emergency placement option, even though her grandson’s half-sister – who is white – was immediately sent to stay with her white paternal grandmother. 

Rolbiecki trained to become a foster parent at Chisago County’s insistence. But after she achieved licensure in 2017, the county agency and courts decided to keep her grandson with the Birds until his parents’ rights were officially terminated. [Both parents appealed, and the appeal was not settled until November of 2018]. 

In June of 2018, an independent therapist brought in to decide the best home for the child emphatically advised that Rolbiecki was the right choice.

“[Latonia] has a stable and safe home environment,” said the report by Deena McMahon, a therapist who specializes in adoption and permanency cases. “She is successfully parenting her two teenage children, who are thriving. They have been deprived of almost all contact … for no discernible reason.”

But the county continued to keep the child with the Birds, and entered an adoption agreement with them in September of 2018. Rolbiecki formally sought adoption in the court, and an evidentiary hearing was set to determine two things: whether the county had been unreasonable in failing to place the child with Rolbiecki sooner, and whether she was a better option than the Birds. 

Chisago County Judge Robert Rancourt, who has overseen this case from the beginning, ruled that the county had not erred in keeping the child with his foster family, the Birds. And he ruled that the Birds were still the better option, in part because of the strong bond the child had formed with them over the course of several years. 

“The court understands Ms. Rolbiecki’s frustration with [Chisago County] due to the lengthy foster care application process, but [the county’s] refusal to place [the child] with her was not irrational and is supported by the record,” Rancourt wrote. He argued that “attachment” to the Birds justified his decision, writing, “There is no dispute that [the child] has a stronger bond with the Birds and their children than Ms. Rolbiecki.”

At the appeals court, Rolbiecki’s attorneys focused on the county’s decision that it would not change the child’s placement while his parents appealed their termination of rights. They argued that the county should have been concurrently planning for his long-term care, and should have prioritized relatives in that determination. 

The evidentiary hearing is “something that must happen during the pendency of an appeal and it didn’t take place,” said Elizabeth Slama, who argued the case representing Rolbiecki’s team of lawyers from the Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. “And because it didn’t take place, the best interest factors and the analysis that took place in this case was tainted and must be redone.”

Slama said the delay of a hearing on Rolbiecki’s motion “was an error, an abuse of discretion, and contrary to the child’s best interest to not place him with Grandma,” and that this case came down to “an intransigent county administration undermining legislative policy.”

The appeals panel reviewed separately Rolbeicki’s three central claims: court delays in scheduling an evidentiary hearing; that Chisago County had been unreasonable in failing to place T.R. with her; and that the court had not appropriately assessed the best interests of the child. 

The panel rejected the argument that the lower court had violated law by staying Rolbiecki’s request for a hearing, instead of either acting on it or dismissing it. 

“Simply put, a district court does not abuse its discretion by staying a motion for adoptive placement until the TPR appeal is resolved, so long as the agency otherwise continues ‘reasonable efforts to finalize the adoption’ during the pendency of the appeal,” the panel said. 

The panel said that the district court “kept its focus on T.R.’s best interests throughout many review hearings,” and implied that T.R.’s parents were the true source of delays in the case.

“It is unfortunate that the district court proceedings were extended by not just one, but two, appeals involving the TPR order,” the panel said in its decision. 

The panel expressed concern with several of CCHHS’ stated reasons for not placing T.R. with his grandmother, including Rolbeicki’s temporary housing stability early in the case, and restraining orders she had filed to keep her children safe. 

“We also find it puzzling that the agency relies on this factor while simultaneously saying that it considered grandmother as a placement option throughout the proceedings. This basis is factually insufficient,” the opinion said. 

But the panel also ruled that the “agency’s concern that T.R. could be harmed by multiple placement changes before and during the TPR appeal is both legally and factually sufficient and therefore supports the district court’s decision.” 

The decision concluded with an analysis of the lower court’s decision that T.R. was better off with the Birds, his foster parents. The panel said that case law “leaves scant if any room” for it to question Rancourt’s process, and concluded that he “did not abuse its discretion in determining that T.R.’s best interests favored adoptive placement with his foster parents and not with his grandmother.”

Rolbiecki expressed frustration with the court’s decision, particularly its acceptance of the delays by the Chisago court.

“It’s funny that nobody is holding this county responsible” for the length of time T.R. has been in foster care,” she said. “There is no accountability there. [Chisago County] sabotaged this from beginning, and that’s what they’re using as a foundation.”

Rolbiecki will seek a review of the appeals court decision within the next 15 days. The high court has the prerogative to accept the case for review, but is not required to do so. 

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1210 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.