A custody battle between a Santa Clarita foster family and a biological family over a 6-year-old girl wages on.
The foster parents, Summer and Rusty Page, raised the foster child known as “Lexi” since she was 2 years old. Lexi was supposed to be relocated Sunday morning to family members in Utah by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. The move was rescheduled to Monday after supporters rallied to “Keep Lexi Home” near the Page residence on Ron Ridge Drive in Saugus.
The Pages’ attorney, Lori Alvino-McGill of the Washington, D.C., law firm of Wilkinson, Walsh and Eskovitz, released a statement Tuesday on the “Save Lexi” Facebook page stating:
“A happy, thriving 6-year-old girl was forcibly removed from the people she knows as her parents because of a terribly misguided interpretation of a federal law that was designed to keep families together, not tear them apart.”
A Facebook page titled “Lexi is Home” was created by supporters of Lexi’s biological family.
In an op-ed piece published Thursday in the Wall Street Journal, Goldwater Institute of Arizona attorneys Aditya Dynar and Timothy Sandefur, who are involved in a similar case, assert that Lexi’s race was the sole reason for her relocation.
“In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that creating a separate and substandard system for children of one race is repugnant to America’s highest law,” the attorneys write. “Fifty years later, it is unacceptable that children like Lexi – and the non-Indian parents who love them – are still subjected to disfavored treatment based on their ancestry.”
But court documents show the county had planned for years to relocate Lexi to members of her biological family, who had been pursuing custody since 2011.
“The court has to do their due diligence to notice all parties, whether or not children have an American Indian affiliation,” said Neil Zanville, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. “Before anyone would adopt, we have to exhaust all options with the family. We’re always trying to act in the child’s’ best interest, and if we know of family and we know of siblings, then that would be optimum to place the child, near their siblings.”
Zanville said the preferred outcome is to reunite foster children with their parents, if it is safe to do so, and if it isn’t, social workers begin to look for other relatives.
“Frequently children are placed with extended family members,” Zanville said, because DCFS “wants to keep siblings together.”
There are cases where foster children are put up for adoption, and DCFS often looks to foster families to adopt those children, Zanville said.
“If there are no relatives,” he said, “and a child is in a foster home, and if the foster parents have had a great relationship (with the child) and they are well bonded … then we look to the foster families for adoption.”
Also, Title IV-E of the federal Social Security Act states that the county must “consider giving preference to an adult relative over a nonrelative caregiver when determining placement for a child.”
Lexi is not only subject to DCFS placement procedures but also falls under the protections of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which “mandates that adoptive placements be made preferentially with members of the child’s extended family, other members of the same tribe or other Indian families.”
By law, the county must follow federal procedures if a child is found to be eligible for membership in a recognized Indian tribe or if parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were a member of a tribe. Court documents show that Lexi was identified as having Indian heritage after her paternal grandmother notified DCFS that Lexi’s father and half-sister are members of the Choctaw Tribe of Oklahoma (aka Choctaw Nation), and the tribe publicly identified Lexi as a member.
Once the tribal determination is made, several people are assigned to the case including a county social worker, an Indian social worker, an attorney for the child and an attorney for DCFS. The Pages hired their own attorney, and the Choctaw Nation provided legal representation for its members.
“This case is about one of our children, one of our tribal members,” according to a statement from the Choctaw Nation. “And regardless of tribal membership, Lexi should be allowed to live with her family, just as all children in any deprived case should…The law requires Lexi be given the chance to grow up with her family, with her sisters. The California courts, time and again, found that Lexi should live with her family.”
“There is nothing unusual about child placement with relatives after a stay in a foster home,” according to the National Congress of American Indians. “The only unusual factor in this case is that the foster family in California used extended litigation to prevent placement of a native child with her family.”
Lexi’s removal from the Page home came after the foster parents lost their third appeal on Friday, March 18.
Lexi’s early childhood was an unhappy one. She was removed from her mother’s custody when she was 17 months old because of “a lengthy substance abuse problem,” according to court records. Her mother had also lost custody of at least six other children. Her father also had an “extensive criminal history” and had lost custody of another child.
Lexi was placed with two foster families before coming to the Page family in December 2011 when she was 2, and the Pages “were aware that (Lexi) was an Indian child and her placement was subject to the ICWA,” according to court records.
In October 2011, her extended family in Utah reached out to Choctaw representatives to express their interest in adopting Lexi, according to court records.
“The tribe agreed to initial foster placement with the (Pages)” because they lived near the girl’s biological father “at a time when he was working on reunification. If reunification services were terminated” after 2011, which they subsequently were, “the tribe recommended placement with the (extended family) in Utah.”
In December 2012, about a year later, Lexi’s Indian case worker Ruth Polcino recommended “that (Lexi) be allowed to stay in touch with the (Page) family, even after she is placed with her aunt in Utah.” The recommendation was intended to allow Lexi “to stay in touch with the (Page) family as extended family who care about her.”
Prior to June 2012, Lexi’s biological father had “successfully complied with reunification services for more than six months, progressing to such an extent that he was granted unmonitored eight-hour visits,” according to court records. DCFS “reported a substantial probability he would reunify with Lexi within the next six months.”
But Lexi’s father’s “emotional state deteriorated dramatically,” according to court records. “He separated from his new wife, left California, and did not visit (Lexi) after July 28, 2012. By September 2012, he had communicated to (DCFS) that he no longer wished to continue reunification services.”
A report in April 2013 stated Lexi’s “ability to re-attach to a new caretaker is stronger because of the stability that the (Page) family has provided for her.”
While Lexi was living with the Page family, DCFS “consistently reminded (them) that (Lexi) is an Indian child subject to the ICWA placement preferences,” according to court documents. “At some point after father’s reunification efforts failed, the (Pages) decided they wanted to adopt (Lexi). They discussed the issue with the (DCFS) social worker, who advised them that the tribe had selected (Lexi’s family members in Utah) as the planned adoptive placement.”
On April 12, 2013, all parties – DCFS, social workers, therapists, Lexi’s extended family and Summer and Rusty Page – agreed on a transition plan with “both families meeting for breakfast or at a park, explaining to (Lexi) that she would be going to live with (her extended family), who are family who love (Lexi) very much and would take good care of her. The (Pages) would reassure (Lexi) that they love her and would always be a part of her family,” according to court documents.
In the next six months, the court granted “de-facto parent” status to the Pages; the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children request permitting Lexi’s placement with the extended family in Utah was approved; Lexi’s attorney withdrew her objection to the girl’s change in placement; and all parties submitted documents addressing whether there was cause to stray from ICWA’s adoptive placement preferences.
The court then ordered Lexi placed with the Utah family after finding that the Pages “had not proven by clear and convincing evidence” that it was certain the girl would be traumatized by the transfer, court documents show.
But Lexi’s placement in her new home was delayed for year while the Pages appealed the ruling.
After they lost the appeal earlier this month, friends of the Pages initiated the “Keep Lexi Home” protest on social media and on the family’s street in Saugus.
DCFS delayed Lexi’s planned Sunday relocation because of protestors in the street. Officials returned Monday, removing her just before 3 p.m. Rusty Page was surrounded by television cameras as he carried Lexi out of his home while Lexi’s foster mother, Summer, held back her other three children and yelled, “I love you, Lexi!” The Pages and their supporters ran after the DCFS car as it drove off with the wailing 6-year-old inside. Crowds of well wishers including Santa Clarita Mayor Bob Kellar came and went throughout the evening.
The Pages’ attorney said: “Our clients have been the only consistent source of love, nurturing, parenting and protection she has received her entire life.”
Representatives of the Choctaw Nation said Lexi is no stranger to her Utah relatives.
“Lexi’s family (in Utah) made sure they were part of Lexi’s life, and they have a relationship with her,” according to a statement. “Each month, they made the long drive to see Lexi. Twice each week, her family had Skype visits with Lexi. In addition, Lexi has had extended visits in her family’s home in Utah. Lexi has a relationship with her biological sisters, and she knows them as her sisters.”
Tribal representatives said they and L.A. County DCFS have been “vilified” by the reaction to Lexi’s repatriation with her relatives and that “the facts of this case have been warped in an attempt to gain public sympathy for the foster family. This case is not about the foster family, but about a child’s long-term best interest – Lexi’s best interest.
“Lexi (is) a child who should never have been subjected to the trauma of a media circus when the foster parents’ legal remedies were exhausted. (She is) a child who should never have had her rights to privacy and confidentiality violated.”
Under state law, foster parents and other caregivers are to preserve the confidentiality of “all information and records regarding a child,” and the child shall not be “subjected to discrimination or harassment on the basis of actual or perceived race (or) ethnic group identification” or similar factors.
“Juvenile dependency proceedings are confidential, and Lexi is entitled to her confidentiality,” according to the Children’s Law Center of California, whose attorneys represented Lexi in court. “The past few days have been difficult for everyone involved. Our focus now is on ensuring that our client is supported in any every way possible and that she, her sisters, and their family are given the privacy they need.”
“The Choctaw Nation can report that Lexi is safely home with her loving family and her sisters, and she is doing well,” the tribe said in a statement Tuesday.
The Page family and friends are still determined to bring Lexi back to Santa Clarita and held a rally in Valencia Thursday evening. The Pages said they intend to appeal their case to the state Supreme Court.