GRAND FORKS — Every year, 13-year-old Bethany Blackberg gets a piece of mail she dreads: A letter, and maybe some candy and a few trinkets from her biological mother.
Usually, she tears up the letter, or even burns it. Oftentimes she’ll cry.
Bethany wants more than anything to be adopted by Laurie Blackberg — who married Bethany’s father, Mikael, in 2014 — and is all but legally her mother. But the problem is North Dakota adoption law, and those letters, which are the only contact she has from her estranged mother all year.
Under North Dakota adoption law, the Blackberg family has found, those letters count as meaningful contact from Bethany’s biological mother. That means each time they come in the mail, they reset the state’s clock on how long they have to wait until Bethany can be adopted.
“Even though I did not give birth to her, she is my daughter,” Laurie Blackberg said. She makes sure Bethany registered for dance class, that she’s on time for volleyball practice, or that she remembers her mask for mid-pandemic choir practice. “And it’s so hard to see when a letter once a year comes in the mail and (Bethany) is so heartbroken, and she is so upset and there isn’t anything that I can do to fix it. Because moms want to fix things.”
Soon, though, a tweak in state adoption codes could change that.
The most recent version of Senate Bill 2340, sponsored by Sen. JoNell Bakke, D-Grand Forks, makes one small adjustment. At present, the law states that a parent who fails to communicate with their child — “significantly without justifiable cause” — for at least a year doesn’t have to be consented for an adoption proceeding. But Bakke’s bill would tweak the definition of child abandonment to include cases like Bethany’s.
The bill came about by chance meeting. Bakke had stopped by Perkins, the Grand Forks diner, to eat alone, when she overheard the Blackberg family talking.
"As the (family) got up to leave, I said, 'Ma'am, I think I might be able to help you with that,’” Bakke recalled. She told Forum News Service that it was a personal matter for her — she had always wanted a large family, but was unable to have more than two biological children. She later adopted two sons.
“Having been a foster parent and seeing how kids so desperately need permanency and need to feel like they belong somewhere … just having a place that's secure and is trauma free and they don't have to worry, it's — I don't even know how to explain how important that is to their development, their confidence in themselves, their ability to function in the world,” Bakke said. “We all need that."
SB 2340 was approved 47-0 in the state Senate on Feb. 10. It awaits a vote in the state House, where it is widely expected to pass. For Bethany, it means she’ll be that much more part of the family that loves her — and, she says, she’ll know she can stay with Laurie if anything ever happens to her father.
“She's really nice,” Bethany says. “She takes care of me like a normal mom would. And she treats me like the rest of my siblings.”
According to written testimony to state lawmakers, prepared by Laurie Blackberg, Bethany’s biological mother left the family when the girl was 4, moving to Germany to be with a man she’d met on the internet. Nine months later, she returned to the U.S. to finalize her divorce and remarry; then left again in January 2014. That’s the last Bethany saw her in person.
After more than a year, Bethany’s relationship with her biological mother fell apart, and the girl began refusing to speak with her on the phone. In 2016, Bethany’s mother called the family to let them know she was moving, and would be without phone access for a few weeks.
There have been no phone calls since. Just candy, letters and “trinkets,” as Laurie refers to them, sent around her January birthday, that young Bethany wants nothing to do with. Multiple members of the family say the only way they know to contact her is by a dated German return address. It’s possible she no longer lives there.
The family is a sprawling, blended mix of Laurie and Mikael’s past. Together, they’ve parented five children: Zane, Moriah and Jonah on Laurie’s side, and Grace and Bethany on Mikael’s, many now adults. In interviews with multiple family members, they’re tight-knit and stronger together than apart.
As for “step children,” Mikael Blackberg said the term doesn’t exist in their home.
“You know, it's been seven years that we've been together,” he said. “Laurie has said this since Day No. 1: The only steps in our house or what goes up and down — to get to a basement or the main level.”
The family has nonetheless had to pass through extraordinary difficulty in recent years. The family lost Laurie’s biological son, Jonah, last year, when he was shot and killed in Northwood, N.D. He was 15, and the family continues to grapple with the loss as the criminal case on the matter proceeds.
Laurie said Bethany’s adoption was something that Jonah wanted — and that the adoption would help give the family some closure.
But SB 2340 looks poised for full passage soon. And, Laurie says, the letter from abroad hasn’t come this year. That makes the family even more optimistic that good things are in store.
"Laurie just has such love for Bethany. You can just tell,” Judy LeClerc, Laurie’s mother, said. “When Bethany is afar, Laurie will look at her, and she just has such joy in her.”