Bunk beds, check. Save-the-date messages for the birthday party at the trampoline park. Plans to attend Sunday kids’ club at church — check and check.
The auntie waiting to take in her two young nephews from foster care had even laid out gifts sent from their grandmother. Sherpa fleece slippers, lined with red plaid, boasted the embroidered nicknames “LIL BEAR,” one set each for the 6- and 7-year-olds. Ashley Boone’s “AUNTIE BEAR” slippers also matched sets worn by extended family members across the country.
As snow melted and spring set in this year, Boone — an Oklahoma child welfare social worker for nearly a decade — felt more than ready to become an adoptive mother.
“Life is definitely about to change,” she texted to a friend. “But I am so happy and excited for them to be with family where they belong!”
Since 2020, the two boys had been placed in four foster homes in Minnesota. Boone, a 36-year-old Black woman, wanted desperately to adopt them. But Kandiyohi County child welfare officials had selected the boys’ most recent foster mother — a white woman who is not a relation — as the most appropriate permanent caregiver. They argued that moving the kids again would cause additional suffering.
An abrupt shift in the now three-year legal saga this past January gave Boone new hope. The Minnesota Department of Human Services voided the Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services’s plan for a foster-parent adoption. State officials criticized the agency, citing a “minimization of the importance of relatives and cultural concerns that the bi-racial children are not with relatives and placed in a non-relative, Caucasian home.”
The boys were to arrive at their maternal aunt’s home in Tulsa by summer.
Meanwhile, Boone stepped up her involvement in their lives, hoping to ease the transition. The three Zoomed regularly, court records show, and she traveled the 700 miles to Eden Valley, Minnesota, each month to go swimming together, play in parks and participate in the children’s play-therapy sessions. The nephews begged their aunt to bring along her silky terrier, Gir.
The boys’ therapists noted a growing connection with Boone. In court records, they wrote that — in imaginary play — the boys would “protect” their maternal aunt from “bad guys.” Sometimes the preschoolers struggled to engage on video conferencing calls. But in a letter signed by two social workers, one brother explained a possible reason why: “Whenever I talk to Ashley or my grandparents,” he reportedly said, “it makes me sad because then I think more about missing my Mom and Dad.”
In a series of emotional interviews with The Imprint over the past four months, Boone said they also asked her about her life in Oklahoma. She said the three had “developed our own language for ‘I love you.’”
But her excitement would soon be upended.
Family: critical to healthy child development
This is the second installment in The Imprint’s Fighting For Kin series, based on a review of hundreds of pages of court documents, as well as interviews with multiple professionals familiar with the Kandiyohi County family court case and the larger issues it represents in the child welfare field.
The two boys at the heart of legal proceedings now before the Minnesota Court of Appeals are not being named in this article to protect their privacy. The foster parent seeking to adopt them is also not being named, as she is considered a protected party by the courts. The children were removed from their parents in 2020 due to allegations of “extreme neglect,” and a permanent home is now being sought.
The boys’ foster parent and her attorney, Tim Groshens, declined to comment for this series.
Boone chose to speak with a reporter, alarmed at how difficult it has been for her to adopt her nephews. Her social work specialty involves working with high-needs kids. She has a foster parent license, a private attorney, and backing from civil rights leaders who say she’s faced systemic bias and racial injustice. State officials have also weighed in on her behalf.
Boone has faced “a pervasive notion that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” said her attorney, Kelli Thiel. She added that such harmful stereotypes are often present in child welfare cases, a misguided notion that the relatives of people who’ve lost custody of their children are likely unfit caregivers themselves.
The central argument supporting the foster parent’s adoption bid is that the boys have grown too attached to be separated from her. Thiel says those in charge of the case have drawn out proceedings, giving more time for that bond to grow.
And the law is clear. Local, state and federal policies mandate a “kin-first” approach to placing foster children who can’t live safely with their parents. Abundant research shows most foster children fare better when cared for by relatives.
Studies by researchers at children’s hospitals, schools of social work and lawyers with the American Bar Association cite better health outcomes, fewer behavioral challenges and reduced impact from trauma when children are placed with extended family.
The effects can be long-lasting. Kids in kinship care have more support when they become adults, and maintain deeper ties to their cultural identity and history. Such familial connections are “critical to healthy child development and a sense of belonging,” reports Heidi Redlich Epstein, associate director for the bar association’s Center on Children and the Law.
‘Just short of miraculous’
In Boone’s case, a not-uncommon argument put before the courts threatened the growing bond with her nephews.
The foster parent’s legal team hired Deena McMahon as an expert witness. McMahon is a well-known licensed clinical social worker with more than 35 years of experience who has testified in hundreds of court cases. She works in private practice, “almost exclusively” with families who have adopted children “with significant trauma and/or prenatal exposure to drugs/alcohol/or violence,” her bio states.
In a late September interview, the St. Paul-based McMahon said she was initially reluctant to take the case, as she had planned to retire. But she relented after the foster parent, a sales manager with an adult son, called her in tears imploring her to help. She even agreed to charge a discounted rate.
McMahon said her June testimony before the Kandiyohi County District Court in the case of the two boys was unusual because it was based on a file review, rather than direct observation. Typically, she observes children with each potential caregiver and speaks with all parties involved, evaluating their mental health and the caregivers’ capacity to meet any needs. In this case, she requested in-person observations, but said there was no time to arrange them.
In court testimony, McMahon described concerns about the brothers’ “diminished resilience.” She determined that under the current foster mother’s care, they appeared to be thriving for the first time — a turnaround “just short of miraculous.” When she sees children beginning to rebound from severe trauma, McMahon relayed, she does not want to threaten their progress with more upheaval.
“I thought that if these boys lost this placement after begging anybody they talked to, to please stay, that I don’t know how they would ever develop a trusting relationship with anybody,” she said. “It wouldn’t matter who they moved to. I just thought it was like the death knell — just one too many.”
In her report to the court this summer, McMahon described “the impact and harm caused by disrupted attachment, and the long- and short-term damage children experience with each additional adverse experience that is forced upon them.”
‘Attachment’ theory and its controversial history
In the Kandiyohi County case — and in many others where she has provided expert testimony — McMahon emphasized the time-honored psychological principle of “attachment theory.” She cited the theory dozens of times in her June testimony, and referred to its chief architect, British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, by name.
Bowlby’s theory centers on the bond between an infant and primary caregiver, which he developed after working with troubled children in 1930s London, and later by studying the behavior of monkeys and ducks. He popularized the concept in a series of seminal papers in the 1950s and 1960s, but his colleague Mary Ainsworth furthered the theory through studies of infant separation anxiety in Uganda and Baltimore.
Since its introduction, attachment theory has been criticized by a variety of professionals, including early childhood specialists, family law attorneys, sociologists and feminist scholars. Before his 2021 passing, Jerome Kagan, a prominent 20th century psychologist and former Harvard University professor, described decades of scrutiny of Bowlby’s attachment theory.
“It ignored the temperament and social class of a child’s family, and it ignored the cultural setting. His beautiful but simple idea was slain by ugly facts,” Kagan said in a published interview. “Attachment is a far less popular explanation in 2019 than it was in the 1960s, and in 10 to 15 years, it’s going to be rare to find anyone defending the theory. It’s just dying out slowly.”
Despite such views, attachment theory is widely cited in child welfare cases, according to published work by Richard Barth, past president of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.
Barth is among many who critique the theory. When used for therapeutic interventions, Barth wrote, “the scientific base of attachment theory is limited,“ adding that “there is a critical need to review the role of attachment theory” in family court proceedings and child removal decisions.
Attachment theory before the Minnesota courts
In McMahon’s testimony in the Kandiyohi County case, she described the two boys’ strong attachment to their foster mother and adult son, but added that the children “did not have an attachment with Ms. Boone.”
McMahon also appeared to dismiss larger cultural concerns that had been raised in the case.
“They have a rich life where they are. They’re involved in their community and their school, extended family. There are people of color that they get to see and interact with,” McMahon said in an interview. “Certainly, it’s not the same — and I wouldn’t pretend it is — as living in a community where your caregivers are Black. I get that. But, I do think that their attachment disruption would have been irreparable and that’s what I rested my testimony on.”
McMahon also had observations about Boone, whom she had seen in the courtroom, but had never interviewed. Echoing points made by Kandiyohi County District Court Judge Rodney Clay Hanson in his ruling, McMahon took issue with Boone’s body language, saying that she rolled her eyes during a hearing.
“She was disrespectful, she was bored. Her whole demeanor was less than invested,” McMahon told The Imprint. She acknowledged this impression was subjective, and reiterated that she does not know Boone. She also noted that the comments she shared with a reporter had “no bearing” on her testimony.
When asked to respond to McMahon’s assertion, Boone became dismayed.
“That hurts me,” she said through tears. “I’ve wanted my nephews since day one.”
Boone explained that she rolled her eyes in court when she heard what she considered to be false testimony. And what McMahon and Judge Hanson described as signs of boredom or disinterest, Boone said were instead attempts to mask her distress. She did not want to break down in a courtroom full of people she felt were speaking out against her.
“Every time we had a break,” Boone said, “I would go to the bathroom. I would cry a little bit in a stall, get out, fix my face and then go sit back down.”
Speaking in broader terms about the significance of the case, McMahon acknowledged the value of children remaining with kin — especially in communities most heavily impacted by the child welfare system, which include Black and Indigenous families.
But, McMahon said, several factors can tip the scales toward kids being better off with an unrelated caregiver. Those factors include the child’s well-being, attachment to a foster parent, and each caregiver’s individual parenting capacity.
These days, “there’s a lot of political pressure” to prioritize kin and race, McMahon said, “without taking into consideration other, equally relevant” concerns, such as child development and the family’s capacity to meet the child’s needs.
“I would say the last five or six years, decisions are made 80 percent of the time based on biological connections and cultural fit,” she added, “and a lot less on whether the family has the capacity, the resources, the skills or the child development knowledge.”
Children’s legal representative makes weighty claims
The boys’ guardian ad litem assigned by the Eighth Judicial District, Tricia Utsch — who is tasked with representing the children’s interests — agreed with McMahon: Their foster mother was the better fit for a successful adoption.
Utsch and her supervisor declined to comment for this story. But records submitted to the courts show Utsch has made multiple child maltreatment allegations against Boone — who is herself a mandated reporter working for a child welfare agency. To date, the complaints have been dismissed by authorities.
For example: Police and CPS reports detail Utsch’s descriptions of incidents this past May and June that she deemed “neglect” and “maltreatment.” The reports describe her observation of Boone with the children at the Dorothy Olson Aquatic Center, where, she alleges the boys’ aunt did not provide proper supervision.
Observing clandestinely, Utsch wrote to a county social worker that Boone was “making a phone call and then either texting or reading something on her phone” over a 30-minute period.
Utsch, the children’s legal representative, later sent poolside photos to social workers. One shows Boone sitting on a white chaise lounge with one of the children; the other boy is nearby, wearing a life jacket.
Boone showed The Imprint text messages she exchanged with Utsch on that June 12 day, detailed in part below. There was a previous plan to meet up, so initially, she messaged Utsch to ask if she was coming to the waterpark.
“We’ll be at the aquatic center another hour or 2 if you still want to come,” she wrote, adding that the boys’ social worker had already left.
“I came and observed and left already, thank you,” Utsch replied. “I didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, so just observed for just around a half hour.”
“Tricia that’s weird,” Boone texted. “But okay.”
Another incident Utsch reported to law enforcement and CPS — that allegedly occurred in May and was reported in July — involved one of the boys saying he fell off a slide during a visit with Boone. He also reportedly said his aunt was in the car at the time he fell.
Utsch’s complaints about the incident — documented July 17 in a form titled “Police Report – Child Protection Summary” — were opened and closed by the Litchfield Police Department in 54 minutes. That maltreatment investigation was “screened out, and Boone said she never heard from authorities about it.
But her allegations had already been raised in the Kandiyohi County family court case. In his June 30 closing arguments, the foster parent’s attorney, Tim Groshens, testified that “a CPS report has been filed with CPS regarding Ms. Boone’s oversight of the children during a visit at a waterpark. These behaviors of Ms. Boone raise valid questions about her abilities to care for the children.”
Less than a month after the trial ended, CPS Investigators stated in a letter to Boone that they found no evidence of neglect or maltreatment.
Foster bonds chosen over family
In his role as the foster parent’s attorney, Groshens brings decades of legal experience. While he formally retired from a 40-year career as executive director of the Minnesota State Bar Association, his bio states that “rather than attempt to learn golf, Tim has chosen to continue efforts to provide access to the legal system, particularly for those who are concerned about the cost related to solving their family law problem.”
Working pro bono for the foster parent, he told the court the state got it wrong when they decided to move the kids from the foster parent to a relative. Groshens argued that the state overturned his client’s adoption agreement in favor of Boone earlier this year only because officials falsely believed the law required the children be placed with a relative, regardless of whether moving is in their best interest.
“This is an incorrect interpretation of the law,” he concluded.
On July 24, this argument prevailed. At the end of a weeks-long family court trial, Judge Hanson ruled in favor of the boys’ foster mom.
Hanson acknowledged some procedural errors by the child welfare agency and the court. But he ruled that it was contrary to the boys’ best interests to be adopted by their aunt. They’d become attached to their foster mom and brother over nearly two years in their home, and had built connections in the community and with their current therapists. Moving again would cause additional harm, he wrote.
And despite her more than 10 years in the child welfare field, as well as previous experience caring for a high-needs foster child in her own home, Judge Hanson also stated that Boone didn’t understand what it would take to care for her nephews.
“Her testimony illustrated for the court how little insight she has to the extent of trauma her nephews have experienced; or, frankly, the challenge of day-to-day parenting,” Hanson ruled.
In addition to ordering the county to cancel the latest adoption placement agreement — between the child welfare agency and Boone — Judge Hanson ordered that her visits with her nephews be temporarily halted.
“Ashley Boone is entitled to visitation with the children,” he wrote, once Kandiyohi County workers complete “safety planning to ensure the safety of the children.” Hanson also wanted confirmation “that she is willing to follow the recommendations of the children’s therapist regarding vetted and unvetted contact.”
Preserving Black families in Minnesota
In Minnesota, activists have fought for years for legislation to better protect Black families, who lose their children to foster care twice as often as white families, according to state data. Supporters of the Minnesota African American Family Preservation Act have shared stories with lawmakers and in public forums that are similar to Boone’s: white foster parents being chosen to care for children of color over their Black relatives.
The bill has failed in the state Legislature for three consecutive years.
Nonetheless, over the past decade, Minnesota has expanded its reliance on kin caregivers. In 2020, 43 percent of foster youth were placed with relatives, up from 16 percent in 2010, according to federal data.
State figures show Kandiyohi County, where three-fourths of residents are white, has made similar progress. In 2021, 63 percent of foster youth in the county lived with relatives.
But family court lawyers and advocates say that across the state, white foster parents are still regarded more favorably by child welfare officials and the bench. Latonia Rolbiecki, a Black Minnesotan who sought to adopt her infant grandson, experienced this firsthand.
Rolbiecki, whose case was featured in a 2020 Imprint series, received a court ruling in her case before the Chisago County District Court that was strikingly similar to Boone’s: McMahon testified as an expert witness, ultimately arguing in favor of white foster parents unrelated to the child, and, a judge later ruled out Rolbiecki as a permanent caregiver, deciding that the baby had become bonded with the foster parents.
Early on in that case, McMahon advised the court that Rolbiecki was the most appropriate adoptive parent. She stated that John and Avery Bird were “not culturally competent” and “could barely be considered culturally-aware. In this regard, they are ill-suited as a permanency placement.”
But later, after resolution in the case dragged on in court, McMahon switched her position.
“It will be even harder for him to transition now than it would have been eight months ago,” she stated in court records. Rolbiecki was best for the infant “in terms of cultural and family belonging over time,” she said. But the Birds were better “in terms of his attachment.”
After the Birds won permanent custody, they posted photos of the child on social media. They had dressed him in a monkey suit for Halloween.
In a conversation last month, McMahon offered a frank assessment of Rolbiecki’s case and her role in it. These days, the grandmother is only sporadically allowed to visit her grandson, now 7, and is hoping he’ll be able to advocate for greater contact when he gets older and has more of a voice in court. For that and other reasons, McMahon said, she has regrets.
When she learned of the Halloween costume, for instance, “I was horrified,” McMahon said, noting the white family’s ignorance of such a well-known racist trope.
Of the more than 600 cases she’s testified in, McMahon said Rolbiecki’s case haunts her years later. She described the adoptive parents as acting from a place of extreme privilege, failing to be “culturally competent,” and taking some “red flag” actions after the adoption was finalized — such as changing their adopted son’s first name, and restricting visits with Rolbiecki and other relatives.
“I got it wrong,” McMahon said.
‘A helpless feeling’
Boone and her mother weren’t the only ones disappointed by the July ruling over who was best suited to adopt in the case involving her nephews.
Marvin Davis, *a deputy director in the Child Safety and Permanency division at the Department of Human Services, told Boone in an email that his agency had done everything it could to assist her — rescinding the county’s adoption agreement with the foster mom, offering technical assistance to the local child welfare agency and providing court testimony to support the relatives’ position.
His department was “very much displeased” with the judge’s ruling, he wrote.
“We all feel as though we were let down by the one entity that had the power to do the right thing,” Davis stated. He also referenced “orders from the bench inconsistent with policy and practice.”
Boone and her lawyer have now brought the case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. As her legal battle continues, Boone said she is grateful that the foster mother is making her nephews feel safe and loved. And although she remains hopeful, she admits to “a helpless feeling” at times.
“Not having my nephews,” she said, “I think about it every single day.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Marvin Davis’ title.
Michael Fitzgerald contributed research to this report.
Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom in St. Paul, Minnesota, covering immigrants and communities of color, assisted with editing this series.