"Has your adoption agency called you yet ?" he asked. I was sitting breastfeeding my 4-month-old baby girl, enjoying the sun streaming through our windows, when the phone rang. It was our lawyer.
"No, they haven't. I was just waiting for them to call and give me a court date. Do you have the date?"
We were eager to finalize the adoption of our baby girl and make her truly ours, according to the law, not just our hearts.
"We have a problem" he answered.
My 4-month-old baby girl had been placed in our home for adoption at the age of three days. We were told the adoption would be quick and easy. Her birth mother had terminated her parental rights before leaving the hospital and the birth father a few weeks later. She had some special needs that made her "hard to place." When our daughter was just 3 months old, I gave birth to our son. As soon as my milk came in, I began breastfeeding our daughter as well. She transitioned from bottle to breast with no issues at all. We worked hard on attachment in her first few months. I carried her in a sling during the day and she slept with me at night. Anticipating the day I would begin to breastfeed her, I was the only person to give her bottles. By the time I got the life-altering phone call she already felt like my own flesh and blood.
"Your daughter is part Native American. I already checked and her birth father has family members registered with the Choctaw Tribe."
Relief flooded over me. He didn't understand.
"She's legally free," I said. "Her birth father has relinquished his rights".
"It doesn't matter" he said, his voice tense. "Being legally free is a state law. The Indian Child Welfare Act is federal law; it supersedes everything else."
And with that, the rug was pulled out from under us. Our world was shattered.
The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 was created in a time when many Native American children were being moved from their own homes to allegedly "better" white homes. The law gave Native American tribes the right to make decisions for Native American children who came into state care. It was a terrible time in adoption history and the law was necessary then.
I frantically called the adoption agency and was told it was true. And beyond that, if the tribe decided we couldn't adopt her, she would be removed immediately. We were not a licensed foster home and couldn't become licensed because we had "too many" children in the home. Too many to foster, but apparently not too many to adopt.
"So they would move her to a Native American home?" I asked. I was still in a state of shock. I was trying to find my footing.
"Probably not. There are not many Native American foster homes".
"So, if there are no Native American homes, we could keep her... right?"
"No. The tribe has a right to say she cannot be adopted by a white family. Even if they have no Native American home to move her to."
We were devastated. We were terrified. My husband and I were afraid to even have that conversation. Would we fight for her? Or give her up now, when she could be moved to a new (likely long-term foster) home at a younger age? What if we didn't agree with each other? What if one of us wanted to fight and the other didn't?
It all made no sense to me. Her birth father had relatives registered with a Native American tribe and was not even registered himself. That was enough to have our daughter moved out of our home (her adoptive home) into a non-Native American foster home?
Our lawyer got to work immediately. By law, he had to contact every band of the tribe and get permission for us to adopt her. If any band said no, she would be moved. Immediately.
Because of my own experiences, I have watched the recent case of Lexi's removal from her foster parents, Rusty and Summer Page for similar reasons, with interest. Seeing another family live through one of our greatest fears has been difficult and made me think closely about the situation. This is not a case in which public opinion should be a driving factor in individual cases. Facebook and Twitter should not be determining the fate of this child.
That said, I do think that the Indian Child Welfare Act needs to be updated. While I understand why the law was made, I think some new requirements would be beneficial. Why move a child from a white adoptive family to a white foster family as they did in Lexi's case? How about if a tribe decides to remove a child from a non-Native American home, they are required to provide a Native American home?
In our case, the Choctaw tribe signed off on our adoption and our daughter is now a beautiful, lively, active 10-year-old. She knows and is proud of her Choctaw heritage.
But I know the anguish Lexi's foster family faced. I know that the foster care system is broken in many, many ways. I know that Lexi's story is gut-wrenching for everyone involved. Perhaps, instead of using Lexi as a public pawn that pulls at heartstrings and is soon forgotten, we can use her story as a stepping stone to once again open up the conversation about adoption, foster care and the Indian Child Welfare Act.
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