This is the first in a series of three articles about Latonia Rolbiecki’s fight to adopt her grandson.
On a leafy cul-de-sac neighborhood in suburban Coon Rapids, 15 miles from the din of the Twin Cities, Latonia Rolbiecki keeps her house ready for the day her grandson Tavon* will be there to stay.
The child, now almost 4 years old, was born exposed to multiple drugs in 2016 because of his mother’s struggles with addiction. Rolbiecki tearfully recounts how, years ago, she readied his room with a crib, “newborn clothes, diapers, everything.”
In much of the U.S., she would be embraced by overwhelmed child welfare agencies as a godsend — a reliable grandmother with a stable income and a big heart, ready to raise her tiny grandson.
But this biracial grandmother, who identifies as African American, has been relegated to a playdate partner for Tavon — “my living room is full of his toys,” said the 42-year-old mother of three. She gets him once or twice a week, enough time for her and her two youngest children to shower him with affection and attention.
Rolbiecki has been prevented from raising Tavon, repeatedly thwarted by government officials in Chisago County, Minnesota, where Tavon was born — a sparsely populated, 95 percent white, rural region about 30 miles east of Rolbiecki’s home.
Chisago County officials left Tavon with a white foster family just days after his birth, and still now, nearly four years later, that’s where he remains despite his grandmother’s fight for custody. Foster parents John and Avery Bird decided years ago they wanted to adopt Tavon, and the county favors them over Rolbiecki.
Although the Birds have been lauded in the local news for accepting infants, an expert in child trauma and attachment warned Chisago County officials in 2018 that the couple was “not culturally competent” to adopt a child with African American heritage. Rolbiecki had become concerned about the same thing a year earlier after seeing how the family had dressed her grandson up for Halloween. She fears the Birds will change the boy’s traditional African American first name if they are allowed to adopt him.
The expert was clear: Tavon should have gone home to Latonia Rolbiecki long ago. Instead, Chisago County Judge Robert Rancourt in 2019 denied her attempts to foster and then adopt her grandson, and declared the Birds “the most suitable home” for Tavon.
Rolbiecki’s case has drawn the attention of top attorneys from the Child Protection Clinic at St. Paul’s Mitchell Hamline Law School, and the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. Mitchell Hamline attorneys have challenged Chisago County on Rolbiecki’s behalf before the Minnesota Court of Appeals — arguments in the appeal are scheduled for January 22.
The case rests on whether the county’s child welfare system, and its courts, were reasonable in how they treated the grandmother. Rolbiecki contends she was repeatedly misled by county workers about gaining custody, and that she was forced to pursue a foster care license before it became necessary. Then, by the time everyone agreed she was more than capable of raising Tavon, Chisago County workers contended — and Judge Rancourt agreed — that the boy had formed too strong of a bond with his foster family to remove him.
“I don’t think the judge was fair in any which way or form under state laws or statutes. He was performing for an audience he needs to vote him back in,” Rolbiecki said. “I feel like he was working for the people that live in his county. And every time I got up on the stand, it felt like it was me against that whole entire courtroom.”
At the state appeals court, Rolbiecki’s attorneys will argue that it was the county, through needless delays, that created the time necessary for that bonding, which is now counted as a factor against their client.
“It took almost 19 months to issue a decision on Latonia’s motion” for custody of Tavon, said Natalie Netzel, one of Rolbiecki’s attorneys. “That was just an error. That is our big overarching argument.”
The saga in Chisago County reverberates with racial undertones. Rolbiecki is mixed race, black and white, as is her grandson. She struggled as an African American girl raised by her white mother and white grandparents, attending Minnesota schools where black girls mocked her lighter skin and white students hurled racist slurs. Her white grandfather openly rejected her for being half black, but over time accepted and loved her.
Rolbiecki agonizes over the confusion and anger that might await Tavon if she isn’t there.
“I definitely don’t want that for my grandkids,” she said. “I want them to be where they are comfortable in the skin they’re in and not, you know, have anybody make them feel any different about their skin or their hair — or anything else.”
Cases such as Latonia Rolbiecki’s have fueled a growing call for the Minnesota State Legislature to pass reforms that specifically protect black families from undue entanglement with the state’s flawed child welfare system. The African American Family Preservation and Child Welfare Disproportionality Act, which will be introduced for a third time in early 2020 by State Sen. Jeff Hayden and State Rep. Rena Moran, would require the state to make extra effort to keep black families together.
Tavon Enters the World
On March 28, 2016, Adalynn Hubbell gave birth to Tavon Rolbiecki at Fairview Hospital in Wyoming, Minn. The baby’s father, Marquise Rolbiecki, waited just outside with his mother, Latonia, who arrived in her scrubs, fresh from her shift as a medical technician at a nearby medical center.
Tavon struggled through his first days, riddled with narcotics taken by Hubbell, and impacted by her drinking during the pregnancy. He was transferred to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at a children’s hospital in Minneapolis, where he quickly stabilized.
Marquise, then 22, agreed that he and his newborn son should move in with his mom – who then lived in the town of Fridley — after the infant was cleared to leave the hospital. Because Marquise and his sometime-girlfriend Hubbell weren’t married, he submitted to a routine paternity test, which two weeks later confirmed Tavon was his son.
During the two-week wait, the Chisago County Health and Human Services Department established court-approved control over Tavon and temporarily placed him with John and Avery Bird, foster parents upon whom officials rely to care for many of the infants taken from their parents in Chisago County.
The Birds — who did not respond to email and phone requests for this series — have become a critical resource within Chisago County’s dependency system. Just two years after they began fostering infants, a local CBS station in 2017 profiled them in a report that ended with a pitch for more families to consider fostering children.
Avery Bird told WCCO reporter Liz Collin, “My friends have a nickname for me. It’s the ‘baby whisperer.’ We have a 2-month-old — a lot of parents will hate me for this — but she’s basically already sleeping through the night.”
Bird said the experience of fostering had changed her assumptions about parents whose children were taken into foster care. “These parents aren’t all terrible, horrible people,” she said. “They’re people that have their own struggles, too.”
Their foster home is a scarce commodity in a county with a growing foster care population and a dwindling number of licensed homes. According to Chisago County Health and Human Services, the number of children in foster care skyrocketed from 16 in 2012 to 89 children by 2015. But the county’s stable of 20 non-relative foster homes in 2014 dwindled to just 13 homes by 2016.
The county relies on the Birds almost exclusively to foster infants, and also uses them as mentors for other foster parents. The initial plan was for Tavon to stay with them for a few weeks, while Marquise’s paternity was established and Latonia Rolbiecki readied her home for another child.
But almost immediately, the internal cogs of Chisago County’s child protective service began relying on troubling assumptions and producing life-changing errors.
One month after Tavon’s 2016 birth, in late April, Chisago County caseworker Jessica Zierden was driving to Rolbiecki’s home to deliver Tavon to his father. She notified the troubled birth mother, Adalynn Hubbell, of the county’s plan.
[Chisago County declined to answer questions for this series because it “does not comment on active litigation,” according to a letter from Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter.]
Hubbell was once a friend of Latonia Rolbiecki, but that abruptly ended when she entered a relationship with her son Marquise, more than 10 years Hubbell’s junior. Not long before Tavon was born, Hubbell and another man showed up at the house threatening violence — Rolbiecki got a restraining order against her.
Hearing that her newborn son would live in Rolbiecki’s home, Hubbell angrily hung up on Zierden. She called back minutes later, alleging to the caseworker that “a few days ago,” Marquise Rolbiecki had slammed her head against a car window during an argument.
Her allegation of an attack by Marquise Rolbiecki was never verified, and Hubbell never filed a police report against him. Court records later showed that Hubbell lied several times to the child welfare agency employees, including falsely accusing Tavon’s grandmother Latonia of selling drugs and being a heavy drinker.
But the cell phone call was enough for caseworker Zierden to turn her car around, and head back to Tavon’s foster parents, the Birds.
A New Plan
That fall, Marquise Rolbiecki’s prospects as a primary caregiver dwindled after he was arrested and jailed for unrelated misdemeanor offenses. By January, Chisago County Health and Human Services had sought to terminate his and Hubbell’s parental rights.
The plan to have Marquise and the boy living with Latonia, once viewed as optimal, was suddenly a barrier. Latonia Rolbiecki said she had already put herself forward to be Tavon’s primary caregiver if need be.
Typically, child welfare authorities jump at the chance to keep a child with close relatives. But months slipped by with Tavon still in foster care.
In September of 2016, Chisago County officials were still viewing the birth mother, Hubbell, as a possible permanent parent. Records show Hubbell told caseworker Zierden that she opposed placing Tavon with Latonia Rolbiecki, and preferred that he stay in foster care with the Birds.
Chisago County caseworker Zierden told Latonia Rolbiecki that she could only have Tavon if she obtained a foster parent license from her home jurisdiction, Anoka County. That claim, which created a mass of red tape for Rolbiecki to overcome, wasn’t true. Chisago County Health and Human Services could have placed Tavon with his grandmother on an emergency basis as early as April, the month that Zierden turned her car around just blocks from Latonia Rolbiecki’s home.
But Latonia Rolbiecki said that option was never brought up to her, and there’s no evidence that Chisago County employees ever considered it. The county did, however, approve an emergency placement for Tavon’s white half-sister, Jillian*, who was allowed to continue living with her white grandmother, Nita Gay.
When Zierden told her she’d need to become licensed, Latonia Rolbiecki asked the caseworker if she should hire a lawyer. Zierden advised her it wasn’t necessary to spend money on one. Her lack of counsel brought disaster in October when Zierden and Chisago County licensing specialist Laurie Karp conducted a home assessment and background check.
The background search turned up a sealed 12-year-old file regarding “maltreatment” in Latonia Rolbiecki’s home county of Anoka. Rolbiecki said Chisago County workers ordered her to unseal the record. Anoka County employees, Rolbiecki recalls, told her that the file was too old to matter in a foster care licensing check.
No good attorney would have let this grandmother turn over a sealed file with contents she did not know or remember. But with nothing to hide, Rolbiecki cleared access to the file for Chisago County.
The “maltreatment” was a 12-year-old incident in which Rolbiecki was struck by an old boyfriend. While holding her daughter, she grabbed a kitchen knife and swiped at him to keep him away from their baby daughter, then fled to a police station.
Chisago County Health and Human Services homed in on a line describing Rolbiecki’s role as a “failure to protect,” a particularly insidious suggestion that she was at fault for escaping with her daughter from domestic violence.
“I was caught by surprise that it was even there,” she recalls. “And if I would’ve known about it, I would’ve had no problem telling them about it, you know? I didn’t ask to be a victim of domestic violence.”
Anoka County child welfare officials did not find her to be at fault. And under Minnesota law, cases older than seven years involving “maltreatment” can’t be used against anyone trying to become a foster parent. Which means the sealed file became irrelevant in 2015.
But Rolbiecki said Zierden wrongly notified her that she could not be a foster parent due to the old report. Rolbiecki was devastated, then shocked when, about a month later, Karp sent a letter informing her that because she had failed to move forward with foster parent training, Chisago County was closing her application to become Tavon’s caregiver.
“I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. What?’” Rolbiecki recalls telling Karp in an email. “Jesse Zierden told me that I don’t qualify because of this [maltreatment report].”
Rolbiecki said it took weeks of unanswered voicemails, and conversations with the state Department of Human Services, to get her foster parent licensing paperwork back on track. She realized she needed serious help to fight a disengaged and often incompetent government agency in Chisago County.
“When I found out that this denial [by Zierden] really wasn’t a denial, I felt I was just kind of being left on the side of the road with no direction,” Rolbiecki recalls.
Among the people she reached out to was Kelis Houston, a child welfare policy consultant and co-chair of the child protection committee for the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. Houston is also the founder of Village Arms, a faith-based organization dedicated to supporting African American families impacted by child protection systems.
“We have relatives waiting in the wings that want to be considered for placement but are wrongfully denied by county child protection workers,” Houston told The Imprint. She mentioned another African American grandmother she had recently helped fight to obtain custody of her grandchildren, who was told by county staff that she did not qualify for foster care licensing due to retail fraud committed 15 years ago.
“That is not a disqualifier,” Houston said. “African American relatives are routinely denied by county staff when the court is supposed to make the decision and for reasons that are not supported by statute.”
She alleges that Minnesota authorities often drag their feet when it comes to placing a black child with relatives. “And when relatives step forward,” she said, “whatever criminal record might be involved in the case, it’s held against the rest of the family.”
Meanwhile, Houston said, Caucasian relatives “are supported through the licensing process, and are often allowed to provide care before they are ever licensed.”
Early on in Tavon’s case, Zierden asked Latonia Rolbiecki to provide a list of any relatives who might be willing to take the child temporarily. Rolbiecki provided a list that included her black aunt, Doris Allison, and her black best friend Ella Combs, both of whom had experience as foster parents.
“I never heard from them,” said Combs, a close friend of Latonia’s who until this year had been licensed to foster in Hennepin County, which is home to Minneapolis. “And I’ve had the same phone number for years, I’ve had the same address for years.”
Combs became licensed when Hennepin County needed a place for her niece to stay. Combs said she took the child in through an emergency placement, then became licensed.
“That’s why I couldn’t understand why Latonia couldn’t get her grandson,” Combs said.
Rolbiecki’s aunt, Doris Allison, said she was also a foster parent in Hennepin County, and had been a licensed child care provider there for 13 years.
“Never, no, never,” said Allison, when asked if Chisago County had reached out to her about taking Tavon in. “And [Latonia] asked me several times, had I heard anything? Never did.”
Houston said that some county employees prefer to place black children in white homes and believes this is largely due to the worker’s ignorance of the black community.
“When you have no cultural context to refer to when assessing homes and engaging families, racial bias will likely play a role in your decision making,” she said.
Houston referred Rolbiecki to the Child Protection Clinic at St. Paul’s Mitchell Hamline Law School, where attorneys and professors supervise law students as they represent clients. They dispatched a student attorney to meet Rolbiecki in the summer of 2017. Tavon had now been in foster care for over a year.
Natalie Netzel, the clinic’s supervising attorney, recalls that the student lawyer “went out there … came back to me and said, ‘You have to take this case.’”
On August 23, 2017, Rolbiecki became a licensed foster care provider. After nearly a yearlong process filled with roadblocks thrown up by Chisago County, she completed the training in fewer than two months.
In September of 2017, the Anoka County Department of Human Services provided Chisago County with the documentation. Two months later, Judge Rancourt terminated the parental rights of Marquise Rolbiecki and Adalynn Hubbell.
The county, and the courts, now had to find a permanent home for Tavon, and had a willing grandmother licensed as a foster parent. Rolbiecki’s legal team assumed that once the parents’ claim to Tavon was severed, the child would go to his fully licensed foster parent grandma.
But in yet another unusual decision, the Chisago County judge who had presided over Tavon’s fate from the start, Robert Rancourt, refused to turn the now 18-month-old toddler over to Latonia Rolbiecki. Both of the birth parents were fighting the termination of their rights, and Rancourt ordered that there would be no change in placement until those appeals were decided.
[Judge Rancourt declined an interview for this series].
Mitchell Hamline School of Law attorneys were bewildered by the decision to continue to keep Tavon with the foster parents, the Birds. Mallory Stoll, one of Rolbiecki’s attorneys, says, “The very clear law, that says relatives must be considered first, was essentially ignored over one factor: ‘attachment,'” of a baby to his foster family. But “kiddos get moved from non-relatives to relatives all the time.”
In December of 2017, the Mitchell Hamline legal clinic formally intervened in the case, moving for the now 20-month-old toddler to be transferred from the Birds to his grandmother.
But things were about to get more difficult for Latonia Rolbiecki in her long pursuit to bring her grandson home. Records show the Birds had become interested in adopting Tavon — and outside of Rolbiecki’s own legal team, everyone involved in the case seemed to be lining up to support them.
Tomorrow: Endorsed, Then Ignored.
*This is a pseudonym meant to conceal the identity of a minor.