Days after the story of a 6-year-old part Native American girl’s removal from her foster family home made headlines across the world, another family has revealed a part Native American child they were planning to adopt was taken from them earlier this month under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Alyssa and Kyle Olsen of Renton, Washington say the 18-week-old little girl was removed from their home on March 4 by a tribal social services agency, less than five weeks after she arrived with the understanding they could adopt her.
“We were grief stricken and in shock,” Alyssa tells PEOPLE. “Beyond not understanding the why, we were and remain fearful about her well-being. There were no questions asked of us regarding her sleeping schedule, how much she ate, when she ate, etc.
“I remember sitting on my couch, sobbing with my girlfriend Megan sitting and crying with me, trying to comfort me,” she says, “and it hit me – they had no idea how to take care of my baby girl. I was completely broken in that moment.”
Their chances of getting her back are “slim to none,” she says.
While the birth mother had signed away her parental rights, the birth father hadn’t, she says. When the adoption agency went to him about that, his tribe interceded and took legal action to get the baby back, getting the court order that allowed them to do so, she says.
“We received a call a week and a half before they showed up at our front door letting us know that there was a possibility she would be ‘re-located,’ ” says Alyssa.
“However, we had zero follow-up after that until they showed up at our front door,” she says. “We were completely unaware that the social services agency was acting outside of the birth father and petitioning for a court order on their own behalf.”
On Monday, social workers with the California Department of Family Services executed a court order to remove Lexi, 6, from the Santa, Clarita, California home of Rusty and Summer Page, her foster parents who’d been caring for her for four years. Lexi, who is 1/64th Native American, was taken to live with non-blood, non-Native American relatives of her birth father in Utah.
Khia Grinnell, the attorney for the tribe that took the Olsens’ baby, did not have an immediate comment. A spokesman for the National Indian Child Welfare Association, which works to ensure compliance of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, did not respond to a request for comment. John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians, would not comment on the Olsens’ situation but said cases like theirs and the Pages are not the norm.
“You’re looking at a system where hundreds of thousands of cases could work well and then one goes badly and that becomes the national news story,” he tells PEOPLE.
“It’s important to recognize that there’s tons of cases that go through that just work normally and there’s no problem,” he says, “and it’s not an indictment on the entire law just because there’s a difficult case every now and then.” The Olsens had been working with the same agency they adopted their now two-and-a-half year old son, Uriah, from for seven months, trying to adopt a second infant. In late January they were told the birth mother of a newborn girl had chosen them, Alyssa says. They met her and the baby on January 29 and took the baby home, she says.
“We were overwhelmed with emotions that ranged from totally freaked out because it happened so fast to completely overjoyed,” she says. “But the second we laid eyes on her we knew that it was as God intended…she was meant to be with us.”
It was fairly sudden because the birth mom had fled a violent situation, according to what the agency told them, she says.
“The birth mom had already signed the necessary documents to terminate [parental] rights, but we had not yet received the birth father’s termination,” says Alyssa, 32.
The agency began the process after the child arrived at their home, she says.
They never had a legal custody order of the child, and were technically acting as ‘a friend or aunt and uncle’ to provide temporary housing while awaiting formal paperwork, Alyssa says.
The child is half Native American on her birth father’s side, Alyssa says, adding they knew of her native heritage when they began the process.
The Olsens will likely no longer be able to adopt the child. She is currently traveling through the foster care system until her court date, where she will either be permanently placed or remain in the tribal system, Alyssa says.
“We will not be allowed to participate in her court hearing at all,” she says, adding that she hopes the birth mother can get legal assistance so she’s at least represented at the hearing.
“As you can imagine, her birth mother does not have the resources to pay for legal counsel and finding a lawyer that can operate in tribal court is not an easy feat,” she says.
While she knew little about the Indian Child Welfare Act before the baby was taken from them, she’s been doing research on it since and understands its purpose, she says.
“Bluntly, public and private agencies were taking native children from their homes and placing them in white families in a very racist and discriminating fashion,” she says. “This piece of legislation was intended to protect native children and families from being unjustly torn apart.
“What we do not understand is why tribes find it necessary to utilize it in the way they have with us,” she says. “One of our biggest questions remains, ‘What are they gaining? Why have they forfeited the well-being of one of their own children to exercise this law?’ It is something that we just cannot wrap our brains around.”
The law was applied in California on Monday, where the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Service took the Page family’s longtime foster child Lexi, who is 1/64th Choctaw, to live with extended family in Utah under court order. The family subsequently filed an appeal to the California Supreme Court in order to regain custody of Lexi, who they wished to adopt. On Thursday night, protesters gathered in front of the federal courthouse in Los Angeles to send a message to lawmakers.
The National Indian Child Welfare Association said in a statement that the Page family had been aware that Lexi’s relatives, who also care for her biological half-sister, wanted custody of the girl for several years.
Alyssa wants to make sure no one else has to go through the nightmare she and her husband have experienced.
“Our hope now is that this heartbreak can be redeemed through advocating for change in this outdated legislation,” she says, “so that children like our daughter and Lexi are no longer treated like property that can be moved and thrown around without regard to their intrinsic humanity.” [IMAGE “4” “” “std” ]