Latonia vs. Chisago County: Endorsed, Then Ignored

This is the second in a series of three articles about Latonia Rolbiecki’s fight to adopt her grandson. Click here to read part one. 

Attorneys for Latonia Rolbiecki, from left to right: Natalie Netzel, Mallory Stoll and Joanna Woolman. Photo: Jillian Lenser

In August of 2017, after a yearlong process marked by confusion and miscommunication, Latonia Rolbiecki became a fully licensed foster parent in hopes of bringing home her grandson, Tavon*, who had been placed into foster care by the Chisago County Health and Human Services department.

Three months later, the boy’s parents lost their parental rights, meaning Chisago County had to find him a permanent caregiver. Were there no other interested parties, Tavon would probably have been sleeping in the room Rolbiecki had done up for him by Christmas that year.

But something happened between the end of her unnecessarily arduous licensing process and the day the court ruled that Tavon, who is black, would need a permanent home. Avery and John Bird, the white foster parents who had cared for Tavon since birth, told county caseworkers they wished to adopt him. More than two years later, the battle for custody continues, with a hearing scheduled before the Minnesota Court of Appeals this week.

Rolbiecki, and her team of lawyers from Mitchell Hamline Law School’s Child Protection Clinic, will argue that an error-riddled process for three years stymied her right to raise her infant grandson. The county insists its hesitance to move the toddler has been justified, and that he has been with the Birds for so long it would cause permanent damage to move him now.

Change of Heart

It cannot be overemphasized that the Birds serve a significant role in Chisago County’s child welfare system, specializing in taking babies who need a foster home. They are a valuable resource in a rural county with a skyrocketing foster care population and a dwindling supply of licensed foster homes.

The couple seemed comfortable playing a purely transitional role in the lives of these children. In a profile by CBS affiliate WCCO, Avery Bird talked about her love of babysitting and watching over others’ children. But something changed in the case of Tavon Rolbiecki.

Independent therapist Deena McMahon, brought in by Chisago County officials to recommend the best future for Tavon, told The Chronicle of Social Change that she was troubled to find that the Birds, “knew too much information about [grandmother] Latonia, under the circumstances, that should have been confidential. … I don’t know how they got their information about her.”

McMahon praised the Birds as “loving, stable and affectionate” and noted that moving the toddler Tavon would “be harmful to him.” But she raised a dramatic alarm that the Birds were “not culturally competent.”

In fact, McMahon wrote, the Birds “could barely be considered culturally-aware. In this regard, they are ill-suited as a permanency placement for Tavon.”

Equally unsettling, McMahon noted that the Birds “have come to see Latonia as dishonest, deceitful and unsafe.”

The Bird family did not reply to a phone call, letter or email requesting an interview. But it’s clear that the Birds’ feelings toward Rolbiecki’s grandson had intensified by the time he was 19 months old. Court records obtained by The Chronicle show that in October of 2017, the Birds told Chisago County caseworker Jessie Zierden that they wanted to adopt Tavon.

In November of 2017, Rolbiecki got a shock that heightened her fear that the Birds and their racially isolated culture — a world away from Minneapolis, just 30 miles to the west — were no place for Tavon. During an officially supervised visit with Tavon, she noticed he had a rash. According to Rolbiecki, when she asked foster parent John Bird about it, he told her Tavon got a rash because he kept wearing his Halloween costume.

John and Avery Bird are a critical resource for a child welfare agency that has seen more foster youths, with fewer non-relative foster homes at its disposal.

Later, she would see the photo of Tavon’s costume on social media – the Birds had dressed him as a monkey.

Rolbiecki was stunned by the Birds’ obliviousness to one of the world’s ugliest and oldest racial tropes. “They just have no sympathy toward the African American cultural side,” Rolbiecki says today. “To me, they take it as if they dismissed that. And they were not sympathetic in any which-way.”

Rolbiecki had deep cultural concerns that in rural Minnesota, Tavon was being raised by a white family in a community with almost no black faces. Like her grandson, Rolbiecki is biracial. She identifies as black. A young grandmother, she is just 42 with a head of curls and a fresh complexion that belie having raised three children.

She had Marquise, Tavon’s father, when she was just 16, and emancipated from her family that same year. She got a job at a telecommunications firm making $18 an hour in 1993, and bought her first house at just 20 years of age.

Rolbiecki left behind a childhood in which she’d struggled to find her identity in a home with only white relatives. Her white mom, Kris, was estranged from her black father, Edward Braziel. Her grandfather, Tom, showed his dislike for black people by refusing to pick her up for the first two weeks of her infancy.

One day, her mom ran to the store and left the lovable black baby girl and the angry white grandfather alone. Kris Rolbiecki later told her daughter that their time alone together changed everything.

“He never stopped loving me after that,” Rolbiecki said. “We were inseparable from that moment on.”

But Rolbiecki soon found herself in public schools at which black girls bullied her for her light skin and white kids openly tossed racial slurs at her. This wasn’t the 1950s – it was the 1990s in the suburbs of Minneapolis, in the metropolitan center of a state considered among the country’s most progressive.

Therapist McMahon’s report echoed what Rolbiecki dreaded about her grandson’s status, writing:

“Tavon is not living in a home that will provide him with a rich and meaningful experience of what it means to grow up as a biracial man. He will be the token black child wherever he goes in his community. It is also likely that he will be denied meaningful contact with his biological family.”

“No Discernible Reason”

Chisago County Judge Robert Rancourt – who declined to be interviewed for this series – denied Rolbiecki’s request to become Tavon’s caregiver in January of 2018, even though she had become licensed as a foster parent at the county’s request. But he did right a wrong by granting her a visitation schedule – case records show that after Tavon’s father Marquise lost his parental rights, Chisago County permanency specialist Heather Scott told Latonia Rolbiecki that she, as Marquise’s mother, was barred from visits with Tavon.

Caseworker Christine Johnson, Scott’s superior, not only insisted that Rolbiecki could no longer visit her grandson, she instructed Scott not to return Rolbiecki’s phone calls.

Rolbiecki’s legal team found Johnson’s actions disturbing. When Rancourt terminated the rights of her son Marquise, they said, Chisago County officials should have launched a robust effort to bring the grandmother closer to her now-toddler grandson.

“That should’ve been when [Chisago County officials] leaned into visits,” between Rolbiecki and Tavon, said Joanna Woolman, director of the Mitchell Hamline law clinic. “I mean, there are so many times when they should have leaned in” to help Rolbiecki “instead of shunning her.”

She makes the most of her visits with Tavon, which happen every Thursday afternoon and every other Sunday. They play in the living room – his current favorite toy is a remote control racecar – until it’s time to cook dinner. Then her two youngest children, 19-year-old Nick and 14-year-old Lakayla take over.

Before Rolbiecki drives Tavon 45 minutes back to Chisago County, she tries to give him a bath each week, using a hair lotion that helps maintain the growing pile of curls on his head.

“He loves the way it smells,” she said.

Latonia Rolbiecki, her son Nick and daughter Lakayla. The three take turns playing with Tavon on his weekly visits. Photo: Jillian Lenser

In March of 2018, at the request of Tavon’s guardian ad litem, Laura Moore, an independent clinician was brought in to assess the child’s permanency options. It was Deena McMahon, who by June would issue her report calling the Birds “not culturally competent.”

McMahon had otherwise kind words for the Birds, whom she described as a “loving, stable and affectionate” family. Tavon was “thriving” with the Birds, she said, and moving would “be harmful to him.”

But her report offered a strong rebuke of the decisions made by Judge Rancourt and Chisago County Health and Human Services that had kept Tavon from Rolbiecki’s care.

“Latonia has been licensed for foster care for a year. Tavon should have been placed with her at that time,” McMahon found. “[Latonia] has a stable and safe home environment. She is successfully parenting her two teenage children, who are thriving. They have been deprived of almost all contact with Tavon for no discernible reason.”

Denied Again

Rolbiecki’s legal team was sure that McMahon’s June 2018 report would be the turning point.

“I thought Tavon was going home with Latonia,” said Natalie Netzel, supervising attorney at the Mitchell Hamline Clinic and one of Rolbiecki’s attorneys. “I remember vividly, I was on maternity leave and tracking things through email and thought, ‘Oh good, this will be resolved by the time I get back.’ And certainly, that did not wind up being the case.”

Records show that the same month Deena McMahon issued her blistering critique of Chisago County’s failure to give the baby to his grandmother, Chisago County Attorney Maureen Caturia asked Judge Rancourt to stick with the Birds.

The county’s baffling reasoning was that separate appeals put forth by Tavon’s birth mother, and by his father Marquise, had not been ruled upon.

It is not standard practice to keep a child in limbo in terms of placement, especially when there is a viable relative option, while waiting for an appeal that is unlikely to succeed. Some termination cases “can take three to four years from the time of removal to the time of reversal,” said Judge Leonard Edwards, a former California dependency court judge who now consults with courts around the country.

Edwards once worked with a colleague on a review to determine the average length of time from when an appeal to terminate parental rights is filed to a written decision. The answer was 100 days.

Natalie Netzes (right), with Woolman: After an independent expert said Rolbiecki was the right choice, “I thought Tavon was going home with Latonia.” Photo: Jillian Lenser.

When Judge Rancourt agreed with county attorney Caturia, “For me it was confirmation bias,” said Mallory Stoll, one of Rolbiecki’s attorneys. “[Chisago County Health and Human Services] already had their conclusion.”

Ten weeks later, on September 11, 2018, the agency belatedly informed Rolbiecki through her attorneys that, the week before, it had quietly entered into an adoption placement agreement — with John and Avery Bird.

In retrospect, said Woolman of the Mitchell Hamline Law School’s child protection clinic, it is clear that Chisago County officials never seriously considered Tavon’s grandmother after the Birds were interested in adopting him.

“The county is complicit in that,” Woolman said. Worse, Judge Rancourt “didn’t follow the law with respect to the court required timelines or relative placement preference in Minnesota. The county didn’t follow the law in terms of what they’re obligated to do. And there’s all sorts of points where … we can document that.”

Shocked by the county’s move, Rolbiecki filed a motion challenging the county’s deal and pursued an adoption agreement of her own. And in mid-November, Marquise Rolbiecki and Adalynn Hubbell lost their appeals, officially losing their rights to parent the child.

Judge Rancourt, who had presided over Tavon’s case since 2016, scheduled an evidentiary hearing on the boy’s future. In the Chisago County court system, it was Latonia Rolbiecki’s last chance to bring Tavon home.

Tomorrow: The Trial for Tavon

*This is a pseudonym meant to conceal the identity of a minor.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
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