Tribal Custody Battle
According to media reports Friday, six-year-old Alexandria clutches her arms and legs tightly around her foster father as she is whisked away from the home she has known for four years.
Her foster family in Santa Clarita, California, has lost a bitter custody battle involving the Native American Choctaw tribe.
“With heavy hearts we are complying with the order,” foster father Rusty Page says.
A reported by CNN, Page begged authorities one day earlier to let the child stay with his family. His voice trembles and he holds back tears as he tries to explain why he thinks the state should let his family keep Alexandria, whom they have fostered for four years. Page, his wife and their three biological children have bonded with 6-year-old Alexandria, who they affectionately call “Lexi,” he says. Lexi has lived with them since she was 2. They have been trying to adopt since she moved in.
The foster parents have been spending their nights in fear that California’s Department of Children and Family Services would come take Lexi after a court ordered her to be sent to her birth father’s relatives in Utah.
“As a matter of simple human decency we implore the county not to prematurely take Lexi from her home,” Rusty Page says, as news cameras gather around him.
But her foster family is not the only family fighting for her.
Alexandria had a rough and tumultuous start in life. Court papers say at 17 months old she was “removed from the custody of her mother, who has a lengthy substance abuse problem and lost custody of six other children.”
Her father “has an extensive criminal history and also lost custody of one other child,” according to the documents.
But her father’s heritage makes this custody battle more complicated. Because he is enrolled as a member of a Native American tribe, and his daughter is also considered Native American, her case falls under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which was put in place in 1978. The law is supposed to protect the rights of tribal families and try to keep the families together, so the tribe gets a say in deciding where a child is placed.
“After reunification efforts failed, the father, the tribe, and the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services recommended that the girl be placed in Utah with a non-Indian couple who are extended family of the father,” court documents say.
The Utah relatives include one of Alexandria’s biological siblings, and the Choctaw tribe decided it would be best for her to be with those relatives. So did the law firm representing the 6-year-old in court.
“Her family in Utah have been waiting to receive her for over three years. During that time they have traveled to California monthly and she has visited their home as well,” says Leslie Starr Heimov, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents Alexandria in court.
Heimov said the “injustice” in this case is that Lexi’s foster family pursued litigation that deprived her from joining and bonding with her relatives sooner.
She would have been 3 or 4, instead of 6, when the exchange happened if the foster parents had relinquished custody sooner, Heimov notes.
The relatives in Utah are not Native American, but they are related to Alexandria’s Native American father through marriage, and the Choctaw Nation argues it is the best place for Alexandria.
“The Choctaw Nation desires the best for this Choctaw child,” according to a statement from Lisa Reed, public relations executive director for the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “The tribe’s values of faith, family and culture are what makes our tribal identity so important to us. Therefore we will continue to work to maintain these values and work toward the long-term best interest of this child.”
The tribe argues the foster family knew all along their involvement with the child would be temporary.
‘We love you’
Neighbors gathered outside the Page family home on Sunday to support the foster family as their attorney prepared to make a last ditch effort to stop Alexandria from being removed.
Men, women and children sang, prayed and held up signs saying, “Keep Lexi home.” The family thought the state was coming to pick her up on Sunday. But they didn’t come that day.
So, over the weekend and into Monday, Lori Alvino McGill, the Page family attorney, was furiously crafting a request for a stay to file in California’s Supreme Court.
But on Monday, the Department of Children and Family came for Alexandria and her foster father walked her out to the waiting car.
Her foster mother and foster siblings streamed out of the home.
Case similar to high-profile Supreme Court battle
The same 1978 law affecting Alexandria’s case also played a role in the high-profile adoption case involving baby Veronica in 2013. It also highlighted Indian Child Welfare Act. In that case the adoptive parents won a long, bitter battle for the girl.
The Capobianco family legally adopted Veronica at birth in September 2009. Her biological mother, Christina Maldonado, had broken up with the child’s father, Dusten Brown, and had opted to give up the child for adoption. According to Brown, she did so without his knowledge.
When Brown learned of the adoption a few months later, he asserted his custody rights under the Indian Child Welfare Act, setting off a lengthy legal fight.
Initially, a family court judge ruled in Brown’s favor in late 2011, and he took his daughter back. Matt and Melanie Capobianco then began their fight to have Veronica returned, arguing federal law does not define an unwed biological father as a parent.
In June 2013, a divided U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Capobianco family. The justices said the adoption was proper and did not intrude on the federal rights of the father, a registered member of the Cherokee tribe.
The court said Brown could not rely on the Indian Child Welfare Act for relief because he did not have legal or physical custody at the time of adoption proceedings, which were initiated by the non-Native American birth mother without his knowledge.
But Brown defied the court order to return Veronica to the couple. He was arrested, but let out on bail. Eventually baby Veronica was handed over to her adoptive parents.
In the case of Alexandria, the Page family complied with the court order but their attorney says they will fight to get her back. The request for a stay was filed Monday. There is a Facebook page and Gofundme.org site set up to help the family and give updates.
In front of cameras posted along the driveway at her foster home, a new chapter began for Alexandria as she headed to her relatives in Utah. The California Department of Children and Family Services has asked that the child be given the privacy that she deserves in her new life.