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2009 story: Tilson family gets custody of deceased daughter's son

Deb Tilson and her grandson, Darion, are shown playing at their St. Paul Park home. The boy, 3, has lived with his grandparents most of his life, according to Tilson. (Bulletin file photo)

In the past two years, the Deb and Dan Tilson family of St. Paul Park has faced the murder of their 19-year-old daughter, Kristine Larson, the cancer of their 18-year-old son, Alex and losing their home due to inability to make the mortgage payments.

So now, for obvious reasons, the family is trying to look forward. And after winning custody in Washington County District Court last Thursday of their 3-year-old grandson Darion, left motherless when Larson was killed, they can finally focus fully on the future, Deb Tilson said.

"In a year we'll adopt him; we'll be able to look forward to our new lives," Tilson said.

Tilson said the law requires they be legal guardians for a year before adoption proceedings can start. She said gaining custody of Darion -- whose mother was strangled to death and then left in a burning car in a Minneapolis alley by his father in December of 2007 -- was important because she knew it was what Larson had wanted and that it would be the least disruptive choice for Darion.

The Tilsons started out their day in court by negotiating with Sephonia Cowans, the child's paternal grandmother, in order to avoid a custody trial. Cowans agreed to a plan where the Tilsons would get guardianship over Darion, but that when he was older he could be evaluated to see whether he should be introduced to Cowans and her family. 

But when she got into the courtroom, she changed her mind, and the judge heard two hours of arguments.

"We were disheartened, we were frustrated, but we were prepared so it wasn't like we didn't have any recourse," Tilson said. The court broke for lunch, and after they returned Cowans changed her mind again, and agreed that the Tilsons should get custody of Darion.

"We were pretty relieved," Tilson said.

Although the Tilsons are happy that they have another major challenge behind them, that doesn't make having a 3-year-old around any easier for the middle-aged couple.

"We're grateful because it keeps us young, but it's exhausting," Tilson said. "It's daunting to say the least."

Dan is now nursing six broken ribs, an injury he sustained while playing on the Slip 'n Slide with Darion, she said.

Tilson said her adult daughters help out a lot by taking Darion overnight or for play dates.

"Really it's more of kind of a whole family effort raising this little boy," she said.

And although it's tougher raising a child in her 50s than it was in her 20s, she said, she's also savoring the experience more this time around.

The hardships she's faced in the past two years have, "made me realize that slowing down and just really savoring every moment of life is one of the most important things you can do because you never know in a heartbeat how things can change," Tilson said.

Editor's note: This story is from July 2009.