This story is being co-published with The Imprint, a nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.
Ashley Boone is uniquely qualified to become an adoptive mom. She’s a licensed foster parent with expertise caring for higher-needs children, and an experienced social worker steeped in supporting kids who’ve been separated from their parents.
Yet Boone — a 36-year-old Black woman with a two-bedroom home stocked with books and toys in a suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma — has been unable to take in the two children she says need her most: her nephews, ages 6 and 7. Despite her devotion and a growing bond, the boys continue to live with a white foster parent in rural Minnesota who is unrelated to the biracial children and seeking to adopt them.
The foster parent and her attorney, Tim Groshens, declined to comment for this story.
But Boone remains vocal about what she and local civil rights leaders describe as systemic bias and injustice within the Kandiyohi County child welfare agency in Minnesota and the state’s courts, which have challenged her efforts to care for her nephews.
“When there’s a family member that’s able, with all of the tangibles that Ashley has, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” said Cynthia Wilson, president of the Minnesota chapter of the NAACP. “When you have someone who has all of the things that are being requested, and then you’re still giving them a problem, something else is going on.”
Boone has worked as a child welfare specialist for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services since 2015, and has seen firsthand the damage done to children when they’re separated from kin.
“When they get older, they’re going to wonder why family didn’t want them,” she said in the first of several emotional interviews. In her family’s case, however, “It’s not for lack of us trying,” she added. “We’re fighting so hard for them.”
‘Extreme neglect’ sends boys out in the world
Similar predicaments unfold for relatives in family courts across the country, even as state and federal policy grows ever more intentional about ensuring foster children who can’t live safely with their parents remain close to kin as the next-best option. The urgency is more pronounced for Black and Indigenous families, whose children are the most likely to be removed from home following allegations of abuse and neglect.
This two-part series, Fighting For Kin, is based on an Imprint 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.
By all accounts, the children have been through a lot.
They were removed from the care of their parents, one white and one Black, in November 2020, at ages 3 and 4. Child protective services (CPS) was first called following reports that the preschoolers wore dirty clothes and ate out of garbage cans.
Social workers found that they suffered from “extreme neglect” at their home in Willmar, Minnesota, and were being harmed by their parent’s drug use and domestic violence. Court records show that after CPS arrived, both boys, who were removed from the home, tested positive for methamphetamine. One boy also tested positive for marijuana, records show.
The brothers had to be quickly moved again from an initial informal foster care placement after it was revealed that their caregivers left the young children alone in an unheated garage as discipline, records show. Over the three years since they were removed from their parents, the boys have been placed in four foster homes with caregivers they’re not related to.
The fourth placement has been the most enduring. For the past 21 months they have lived with their latest caregiver, a sales manager. At her rural Minnesota home, the boys are reportedly safe and properly cared for, and, according to therapists, beginning to heal from the traumas they’ve survived.
In court documents, the foster mom and those backing her adoption request say she and the children have grown increasingly attached. Moving them to their maternal aunt’s home three states away, they argue, would cause further and unnecessary disruption in their lives.
And so far, the Kandiyohi County District Court judge in charge of the case has agreed. In a July 24 ruling, Judge Rodney Clay Hanson stated that any move now would cause the children to regress and compound their feelings of “loss and abandonment.”
One central factor has delayed the brothers’ current foster parent from adopting them.
The boys have eager relatives fighting to keep them within the family, and they’ve been speaking up since they heard the boys needed a home three years ago, Boone included.
Despite three years of legal back-and-forth in a case mired in confusion, conflicting official orders and contention, Boone has not given up.
When Boone’s attorney, Kelli Thiel, discusses the case, she echoes advocates who fight for the rights of Black and Indigenous foster children to remain with kin, pointing to the long-term costs of family separation. She questions why a case that should have been clear-cut is still winding through the courts, leaving two young children’s futures in limbo.
“If a social worker isn’t good enough to care for her relatives,” Thiel said, “who the heck is?”
Extended family lines up to help
In their early search for a foster home, social workers with Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services sent at least two dozen letters to relatives in Minnesota, California, Georgia and West Virginia, asking if they might be interested in caring for the children. State law requires these queries to be sent within 30 days of a child’s removal from parents.
The letters notified the boys’ extended family of the child welfare system’s mandate: “Agencies are required to first consider relatives for foster care placement, and help them participate in the care and planning for the child.”
Several out-of-state maternal relatives responded affirmatively, including their grandmother Thelma Frieson, a cousin, and a great-aunt who was already a licensed foster parent in California. Two paternal relatives in Minnesota also volunteered, but were deemed ineligible.
Boone, who is Frieson’s daughter and the boys’ maternal aunt, said she did not receive a letter from the county seeking willing relatives, but learned of the dire situation from her cousin. She reached out to Kandiyohi County’s child welfare agency one week after the letters were mailed, asking to have the boys placed with her. Frieson did so as well.
Frieson had adopted the children’s birth mother from foster care when she was 13. She and Boone did not initially know the boys, due to a period of estrangement with their mother, but reached out immediately after learning they were in need.
While Frieson was in talks with the child welfare agency about getting custody, Boone obtained a foster parent license in Oklahoma to ensure she, too, would be eligible to take in her nephews. She told a social worker the agency should consider her as a second option if Frieson’s adoption could not be completed.
‘They just never wanted us to have these kids’
Initially, Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services wanted to keep the boys local, giving their parents a chance to visit and to follow any court orders necessary to reunify the family. But they were stripped of parental rights within a year, amid allegations of drug abuse and domestic violence.
Caseworkers initiated the interstate process to have Frieson and Boone approved as foster care placements — in May and September 2021, respectively.
But unbeknownst to the relatives, the same child welfare agency was already pursuing an adoptive home with someone outside the family. The same month Boone’s application was filed, the boys began having overnight visits at the home they would shortly move into.
Boone said this proved the bias she’d been sensing: “They just never wanted us to have these kids. It’s just crazy.”
Kandiyohi County Health and Human Services officials declined to comment for this story, citing pending litigation. But in court documents, they’ve consistently stated that while the agency understands and appreciates the importance of kin, in this case it is looking out for the boys’ best interests. Data show the county places children with family members at a higher rate than the statewide average, roughly 63 percent of the time.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees the county child welfare agency, also declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.
Delays in the brothers’ case resulted from the county’s actions in certain instances, but also due to early missteps by the relatives seeking to adopt. Interstate placement applications for both Boone in Oklahoma, and Frieson in California, were initially denied because they failed to meet deadlines.
“They were both initially denied on technicalities, nothing substantive,” Boone’s lawyer Thiel stated in an email. “There were no concerns that the boys wouldn’t be safe with Thelma or Ashley.”
Both relatives consistently communicated to the court and to the county social services agency that they wanted to care for the boys, records show. Interstate transfer applications were eventually refiled and approved.
With Boone’s years of experience as a child welfare social worker, she’s well aware of the industry-wide standard and prevailing best-practice in her field that does not appear to have been applied in her nephews’ case: that foster children should be placed with relatives above all other non-kin options, whenever possible, for their own well-being.
This is especially true for Black and Native American children in this country, who for centuries have been systematically and brutally separated from their parents through slavery, boarding schools, forced assimilation and adoptions into white homes.
In recent years, Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, an influential federal civil rights panel and a growing body of social work scholars and legal experts have called out institutional racism and implicit bias at all stages in the child welfare system that remain to this day, from investigations and removals to lengths of stay in foster care to the termination of parental rights.
Throughout her career, Boone has witnessed first-hand how these state actions impact the children involved, compounding a desperate longing for kin.
“I work this job,” she said. “Kids would rather sleep on the floor at grandma’s house than be in a mansion.”
Jessica Pryce, a research faculty member at Florida State University whose work focuses on race and child welfare, agreed. Pryce said it’s all too common for the relatives of children of color to be overlooked by social workers and the courts when there are foster parents, who are often white, wanting to adopt.
Pryce said she is reminded of this frequently during social worker training sessions she conducts across the country aimed at reducing racial disparities in foster care. She first learned of the Minnesota case when a desperate email from Boone landed in her inbox. Boone knew of Pryce’s published research and hoped she might be able to offer her some guidance.
“I get these emails a lot,” Pryce said. “But this one kind of shocked me because she seems like an ideal candidate for placement.”
Agency looks away from willing kin
The two brothers had changed foster homes three times in 13 months before they moved in with their most recent foster parent and her adult son in Eden Valley. The three met through the foster mom’s relative, a previous caregiver. She quickly took an interest in caring for the boys permanently.
With the child welfare agency’s approval, the brothers moved into her home on Christmas Eve 2021. She had received her foster parent license a month prior, with the explicit goal of adopting both boys, court records show. Within three weeks of the children moving in, the Minnesota Department of Human Services signed an adoption placement agreement with her. It was approved by the courts four months later.
Boone contested the agency’s placement before the adoption could be finalized.
Minnesota state law requires that “tier one” relatives — people related by blood, marriage or adoption — be considered for placement ahead of other foster care options. This gives Boone priority over the foster parent, who is a “tier two” placement — someone close to the children who they’ve resided with.
The county has shifted its position several times on where the boys should live. At one point, county social workers filed court documents requesting “expedited placement” with grandmother Frieson in California. Later, they selected Boone’s Oklahoma home.
But at the same time, caseworkers also continued to move forward with settling the boys with the foster non-relative parent, and once they were there, pushed to have them stay.
As is typical in many child welfare cases, social workers simultaneously pursued several “permanency” options for the children, a process known as “concurrent planning.”
“It is in the children’s best interest to remain in their pre-adoptive home and continue with the adoption process as these children need permanency established,” one caseworker wrote to the court. “They have been out of the home nearly 2 years. They need to feel settled.”
Sparking an investigation
Meanwhile, in June 2022, Boone received the interstate compact needed to move the boys out of Minnesota. Grandmother Frieson had received approval to care for them at her California home that January. But to simplify the case, the two women decided to consolidate their efforts behind Boone’s bid to adopt the children. They assumed that given her particular qualifications, she’d face fewer obstacles.
Instead, a series of hearings ensued, each time further delaying finality in the case and strengthening the county’s argument that the boys were growing ever-more attached to their foster mom.
Frustrated, Boone fired off email after email, bringing her concerns to higher-ups at the Kandiyohi County Department of Health and Human Services and the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which oversees the county agency. She also wrote to elected officials in both Minnesota and Oklahoma.
“What we have here is a foster family falling in love with the children that are placed with them and wanting to keep them,” Boone stated in an email to Minnesota Representatives Dave Baker, a Republican, and Ruth Richardson, a Democrat. “That in itself is not rare, but Kandiyohi Co. being complicit in allowing them to is unethical and wrong. Getting to keep someone else’s family because you are exercising your role as a foster parent appropriately is unethical.”
For weeks, Boone and her mother also emailed Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, a Democrat, and posted daily on his social media pages. According to court documents, staff at the governor’s office sent the concerns along to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, which opened an investigation into Boone’s concerns.
The case then took a sudden and unusual turn.
Concern over equity
This past January, the *Minnesota Department of Human Services rescinded the year-old adoption placement agreement (APA) with the foster parent — a contract state officials had previously approved, based on Kandiyohi County’s recommendation. The county child welfare agency had violated state law when it moved the boys to a new placement without properly notifying or considering placement with the relatives who’d been vying for custody, Marvin Davis, *a deputy director in the Child Safety and Permanency division at the Department of Human Services, wrote in a letter.
In an internal email quoted in court documents, state officials also noted equity concerns.
“We don’t rescind APAs very often but felt there was enough concern, especially regarding equity, to warrant this action,” Kathleen Hiniker, an adoption and kinship care supervisor with the human services department wrote in the email.
In another email to Tikki Brown, *assistant commissioner of the Children and Family Services administration at the Minnesota Department of Human Services, and Jamie Sorenson, director of the state Child Safety and Permanency division, Hiniker said the case exhibited 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.”
While the boys’ current foster mother is white, her 19-year-old son who lives in the home and helps care for the children, has a Puerto Rican father whom the courts apparently considered to be non-white. Kandiyohi County District Judge Hanson stated in his July 24 court ruling that because of her son’s background, the foster home should be considered biracial.
Judge Hanson, who is white, “specifically rejected” Boone’s argument that in rural Minnesota, the boys wouldn’t be able to be raised around people of their culture “who look like them.”
The judge’s response stunned Boone and her family.
“The boys look more like (the foster mother’s biological son) than either Ms. Boone” or the foster mother, he ruled.
Still, state officials wouldn’t consent to an adoption until the county “engaged and considered the relatives associated with this case in accordance with state law,” Davis, *a division deputy director at the Department of Human Services, wrote.
Days after the foster mothers adoption plan was overturned by the state, Kandiyohi County child welfare workers began making plans for the brothers to move in with their aunt, court records show.
To Boone, it seemed that, finally, she had prevailed in the fight for her nephews.
“I cried happy tears for days,” she said.
The ecstatic aunt messaged friends and family to share the news, asking them to keep praying for her — and for the boy’s current foster mom, whose feelings she was also considering. “I know this will be a loss for her,” she texted a friend. “I am prayerful that this will be amicable and we can stay extended family.”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the Minnesota Department of Human Services’ name and the job titles for Marvin Davis and Tikki Brown.
In Part Two, coming tomorrow, Boone challenges a system that appears weighted against her as the court battle intensifies over who should adopt the two Minnesota brothers.
Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom in St. Paul, Minnesota, covering immigrants and communities of color, assisted with editing this series.