Court Rules for Choctaw Family in Adoption Case

     LOS ANGELES (CN) – A California court of appeals delivered a fresh blow to a foster family seeking custody of a 6-year-old Native American girl, finding it in her best interest to live with her extended family in Utah.
     Images of foster father Rusty Page clutching 6-year-old Lexi left an indelible mark when the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services arrived to take her away from Page and his wife’s Valencia home in March. Interest in the case had been high, with outpourings of support for the couple from around the world.
     But California’s Second Appellate District said the Pages knew that Lexi, referred to as Alexandria P, could end up with family members under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.
     The July 8 ruling states that evidence shows the foster parents interfered with Lexi’s individual therapy sessions and visits from family members, and that it is in her best interest to move to Utah where she can bond with two of her siblings.
     Rusty Page said in an interview that he and his wife Summer Page were anticipating the ruling, but hoped a higher court would take another look at the intent of the Indian Child Welfare Act to help children who have been separated from their families.
     “If you look back to the surrounding events of enacting of ICWA, the people who enacted it had no intention of it applying to kids like Lexi,” Page said.
     He said the courts should return the federal law to its “original intent, which was to prevent the breakup of Indian families.”
     Page said the court had “mixed the facts up,” and that contrary to the court’s findings, he and his wife encouraged Lexi to explore her tribal roots, and set up Skype calls with her Utah extended family twice a week.
     The Pages struggled with a therapist from United American Indian Involvement, who insisted on individual therapy sessions to a “point that was traumatizing” to Lexi, Page said.
     Page’s attorney Lori Alvino McGill said there had been no court order for individual therapy until later on.
     “It’s been overblown, like the Pages did something in their own interest, but really, they were at all times just looking out for Lexi’s best interests,” McGill said in a telephone interview.
     The attorney said the Pages complied with visitation orders but wanted to make sure the orders were sensitive to the child’s needs.
     “That was sort of twisted and used against them in court,” said McGill, who is with Wilkinson Walsh & Eskovitz.
     The ruling is the third time the appeals court has considered the closely watched case.
     Previously, it ruled that a Los Angeles County dependency court had failed to use a correct standard in weighing whether there was good cause for Lexi to live with her relatives in Utah.
     But in his July 8 ruling, Judge Sandy Kriegler said the lower court had fixed its earlier errors and that the Pages did not “prove by clear and convincing evidence” that it is in the child’s best interests to remain with them.
     He affirmed the ruling by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rudolph Diaz.
     The ruling states that the appeals court considered Lexi’s relationship with the Utah family and her siblings, their ability to connect Lexi with her sense of cultural and self-identity and the Pages’ “relative reluctance or resistance to foster Alexandria’s relationship with her extended family or encourage exploration of and exposure to her Choctaw cultural identity.”
     The Pages were Lexi’s third foster family after the state took her from her birth mother and father due to concerns that her parents could not take care of her.
     Kriegler found that the Pages knew Lexi was an Indian child and that she could be placed with her family members under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
     By the time Lexi was placed in their care, her relatives in Utah, Ken R. and Ginger R., had already told the Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma that they were interested in adopting her, according to court records.
     Kriegler wrote that a court-appointed family therapist found that Lexi had formed a “meaningful and affectionate” bond with her half-sisters in Utah, and worried that while the Utah relatives would support Lexi’s relationship with her foster family, the Pages would not.
     The judge said the Pages “emphasis on possible trauma” to Lexi from being removed to Utah “ignores the strength of her connection” with her relatives there.
     Kriegler said the move would allow Lexi to strengthen her bond with her relatives and two siblings.
     Page told Courthouse News that Lexi had bonded with the family “no more than with other people that she visited.”
     “No matter how much time she spent with the family in Utah, that doesn’t negate who she identifies as her family,” he said.
     McGill said the court had considered evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiff, the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, and that the family would appeal to the California Supreme Court, and if necessary to the U.S. Supreme Court.
     “What you see in that opinion is a very one-sided account that basically assumed that everything the other side has said is true,” McGill said.
     McGill said that Lexi had never been given the opportunity to speak in court. The attorney said that she has “no doubt” where Lexi would like to be.
     “If you asked an average 6-year-old child whether they would like to remain in their home with their mommy and daddy and their sisters and brother, or move somewhere far away and never see them again … I don’t think there’s any question where the child would come out,” McGill said.
     She said the case was “excruciating” for the Pages and described Lexi as “psychologically abducted.” She had not been allowed to call the Pages in the three months since her removal, McGill said.
     Page said that not being able to talk to Lexi had made his family “very sad.”
     “I don’t know if there’s really words that describe it,” Page said. “But at the same time, we’ve seen an outpouring of love and support from literally around the world.”
     Lexi’s reaction when she was taken away was “much louder than any words,” he said.
     “She very clearly did not want to leave,” he said.
     Department of Children and Family Services spokeswoman Armand Montiel said in an email that the agency agreed with the panel’s “very detailed decision.”
     Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma attorney Melissa Middleton was not immediately available for comment by phone and did not respond to an emailed request for an interview Wednesday.
     Presiding Judge Paul Turner and Associate Justice Lamar Baker joined Kriegler on the panel.
     The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was enacted, in part, to atone for centuries of de facto federal policies that took Native American children from their families and sent them to Indian boarding schools and/or the custody of Anglo foster families and religious groups. The Mormon church, for example, had taken custody of more than 5,000 Native American children by the time Congress approved the Indian Child Welfare Act.
     The bill’s primary sponsors were Congressman Morris Udall of Arizona and Senator Mark Abourezk of South Dakota, both Democrats. It was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.

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