Breaking: California Returns Child to Family in ICWA Case
On Monday, March 21, pandemonium broke out in Santa Clarita, California, at the home of foster couple Summer and Russell Page as social workers from the Department of Children and Family Services arrived to pick up a 6-year-old girl who was being held by the couple in defiance of a court ordering her returned to relatives after a five-year custody battle. At 2:45 p.m. PST, the sobbing girl was carried to a vehicle and whisked away as dozens of media outlets and protesters looked on, bringing an end to a stand-off over the child’s custody that had made headlines around the world.
The girl, who goes by the name “Lexi,” was ordered to be placed with relatives, including her biological sister, in Utah in compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act. Her identity was released to the media by the Pages over the weekend, including a Facebook page titled “Save Lexi,” in which they sought public support in defiance of the court’s order, according to legal experts in California.
On Sunday, the Pages, who authorities say were told repeatedly from the beginning that the child was “never up for adoption,” were supposed to facilitate a peaceful transfer at 10 a.m., but efforts to retrieve the child were blocked by protesters who had surrounded the couple’s house to prevent her removal. Officials did not want the transfer to become a dangerous situation and left without the child, according to those familiar with the case.
Yesterday morning, however, officials from DCFS released a statement that the agency intended to carry out the court’s order and asked the media “to respect the child’s privacy.” Behind the scenes, authorities were in contact with the foster parents to inform them to prepare Lexi for transfer or face criminal charges.
The girl has been at the center of a custody battle between the couple, her biological father and the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, for nearly five years. She is the second child that the Pages have attempted to adopt out of foster care, according to court documents. The first child was also returned to its extended family after a custody battle with the Pages.
Indeed, according to both court documents and those familiar with the case, Lexi has had an ongoing relationship with her relatives in Utah for nearly her whole life. The couple, who are non-Indian relatives of Lexi’s biological father, fall within the familial placement preferences under ICWA. They have visited the girl at their own expense every month and regularly Skype with the girl at least once a week. Additionally, she has visited them in Utah, as well, and―significantly, she considers them family, according to insiders.
“These are not strangers that she’s never seen before or had any kind of relationship with,” said a source close to the father’s family who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issues involved. “Her sister also lives with [the Utah couple] and she has another sister who lives down the street from them. She has a very close relationship with the Utah relatives, and the Pages have been a big part of facilitating that over the years, so it’s baffling that they would create this kind of drama and friction between the two families at the last minute when they have thus far had a very amicable relationship that was in Lexi’s best interest. They knew good and well that the transfer was coming―this was not a surprise visit from DCFS, so all this drama was completely for show.”
Attempts to reach the Pages or their legal team by ICTMN were unsuccessful, however, their attorney, Lori Alvino McGill―who also represented Baby Veronica’s birth mother, Christy Maldonado in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl in 2013―told local media that she will be filing an appeal with the California Supreme Court forthwith for the girl’s return and that another trip to the United States Supreme Court may be in the works “if that becomes necessary.”
A Little Perspective
The case began in 2010 when the child’s father lost custody of his daughter after he went to jail for selling stolen auto parts, according to court documents. The girl went through several foster homes before being placed with the Pages, who have been attempting to retain her ever since, in spite of being reminded numerous times by the state and the courts that she would eventually either be reunified with her father or be sent to live with relatives.
The girl’s father was released from jail in December 2011, after which the girl remained with the Pages while he worked to complete a “reunification plan,” which included unmonitored day visits over weekends.
At some point, however, communication between the Pages and father broke down after it became clear that they were targeting his daughter for adoption and interfering with his visitations, he told ICTMN at the time. According to court documents, the father was a “model parent” who had over time become depressed and worn down by fighting with the Pages and what he considered lengthy, unnecessary reunification requirements that he felt were not getting him any closer to regaining custody of his daughter.
In December 2013, he reluctantly ceased reunification and requested that she be placed with relatives according to placement preferences under ICWA. In 2014, however, the Pages went to court to establish “de facto parent” status―giving them the same rights and standing as biological parents―which was unanimously rejected by a California appeals court.
“The foster family was well aware years ago this girl is an Indian child, whose case is subject to the requirements of the Indian Child Welfare Act and who has relatives who were willing to raise her if reunification with her father was unsuccessful,” the National Indian Child Welfare Association said in a statement. “The purpose of foster care is to provide temporary care for children while families get services and support to reunite with their children, not to fast-track the creation of new families when there is extended family available who want to care for the child. The temporary nature of these relationships is also the reason we view those who serve as foster parents as selfless and nurturing individuals. Reunification and placement with extended family whenever possible is best practice for all children, not just Native American.”
Moving Forward Under the New Normal
According to officials with the California DCFS, peaceable transitions for the child are the primary objectives when replacing them to another home. Alerting the media, refusing to relinquish the child and releasing her name to the press is in violation of not only the court order, but also a violation of confidentiality that is enumerated under state statute.
“We like all of our transitions and replacements to go smoothly,” said Armand Montiel, public affairs officer for DCFS. “We don’t like drama for the child.”
Montiel said the actions by the Pages over the weekend could trigger sanctions not only by the court, but also by the foster agency in making a determination about whether they should remain a foster family.
Leslie Heimov is the executive director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which represents 33,000 children in Los Angeles and Sacramento, with over 275 lawyers, paralegals, investigators and social workers. They also represent Lexi’s interests in this case. Heimov said the main priority at present is to ensure her safety and well-being during the transition period, in spite of the media chaos surrounding her retrieval yesterday.
“The privacy issues in dependency court proceedings are confidential under state statute, so we try to follow the law and we have not yet decided whether we’ll pursue legal action against the Pages for violating confidentiality,” Heimov told ICTMN this morning. “At the moment we are more concerned about our client and the best way to get her placed with relatives and her emotional and physical well-being. That said, even setting ICWA aside, this child has a family and sibling that she should be placed with, which is also the preference under California state law. We are very cognizant of the privacy issues, but we feel that the information that is being reported in the public arena about this case should be accurate.”
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