When Rusty Page prepared to load his sobbing six-year-old foster daughter into the car that had arrived without notice to take her away for good on Monday, he told her he would never give up on getting her back.
“She was screaming and she said, ‘Don’t let them take me,’ ” Rusty, 32, tells PEOPLE, with tears streaming down his face. “I told her, ‘We’re your mommy and daddy and we will fight for you and not give up.’ Then they just drove away.”
Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services officials took Lexi, their foster daughter of four years, from their Santa Clarita, California home on Monday under a court order that stated that the girl, who is 1/64th Choctaw, should be sent to live with extended family (who are not Native American and are not blood relatives) in accordance with the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The act was passed in 1978 to limit the breakup of Native American families through adoption or foster-care placements. The placement order, which was signed off on by the tribe, her birth father and an attorney for Lexi, came Friday, after the Pages fought a nearly four-year legal battle to adopt the young girl.
On Tuesday, the Pages filed an appeal to the California Supreme Court. If that’s rejected, they say they’re ready to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We’re not going to stop until she’s home,” Rusty says.
The National Indian Child Welfare Association released a statement Tuesday saying Lexi’s removal should not have come as a surprise to the Pages.
“Court transcripts indicate the Pages were aware since 2011 that their foster daughter had loving relatives wanting to welcome her into their home and reunite her with her siblings, one of whom she will now live with,” the statement said.
“As with most foster placements, where reunification with family is the stated objective, the Page family understood their placement was to be temporary,” the statement said.
Lori Alvino McGill, the Pages’ attorney, says part of her argument is that the act does not apply to Lexi.
“The law was passed because of concern that Indian families and communities were being broken up for no good reason,” she tells PEOPLE. “They wanted to put a stop to that and so they responded by enacting a law that was meant to keep families and communities together and to make it more difficult for social workers to split families apart.
“But they wrote a law that reads much more broadly than that and can apply to children like Lexi who were not removed from an Indian family,” she says.
“She was removed from an Hispanic mother, and just because her biological father has some Indian ancestry, a whole different set of rules apply to her placement,” she says. “And I would say it’s a law that was passed with good intentions but has some arbitrary and harmful effects.”
The Pages agree.
“It feels like a nightmare, like it’s a really bad dream we’re all stuck in, ” Rusty’s wife, Summer Page, 33, tells PEOPLE.
The couple’s oldest daughter, 9-year-old Maddie, screamed for hours after the girl she calls her sister was taken, her parents say. The couple says they have not slept a wink in three days.
“We were all broken by our own sadness, but more than that, by the fact that Lexi was hurting the most,” Summer says.
They’ve started a petition to help them get her back.
For two days in a row, a crowd of friends and neighbors gathered to protest the girl’s removal by LA County social workers. After she was removed Monday afternoon some remained to sing and pray.
“When that car drove away we had 300 people standing on our doorstep crying and singing and what did Lexi have?” Rusty asks.
“There’s no comfort for her and we know that,” adds Summer.
A Temporary Situation
Lexi was removed from the custody of her birth mother, who has “lost custody of six other children,” at 17 months old in April 2011, according to court documents.
Her biological father “has an extensive criminal history and has lost custody of one other child,” according to the documents, so the tribe allowed her to be placed in foster care.
She’d been in two foster homes before landing in the Pages’ home in December 2011, when she was just two years old. Her most recent foster family chose to give her up after it was discovered that the young girl would be subject to the Indian Child Welfare Act, according to the Pages.
As Rusty explains, Lexi’s previous foster family did not wish to continue fostering a child they most likely wouldn t be able to keep. The Pages took custody of Lexi with full knowledge of the act and the intention of caring for the young girl until she could be reunified with her biological father.
When Lexi came to live with the Pages and their (then) two children, the young couple dedicated themselves to supporting the girl through the emotional and behavioral issues she suffered because of her unstable early years. According to court documents, Lexi showed signs of reactive attachment disorder, which can develop if a child’s basic needs are not met, or if he or she lacks in stable attachments with parents or caregivers.
“For the first six months she was with us if we tried to pick her up she would dig her nails into our arms as if we were about to throw her,” Rusty recalls. “We spent months just cradling her to get to the point where she could trust us to pick her up.”
As the family focused on supporting Lexi through these struggles, they also worked to help her develop a relationship with her birth father through weekly meetings.
“We poured our hearts and souls into helping her recover and at the same time trying to help facilitate visits with her birth father,” Rusty says.
A New Family
About six months after the Pages brought Lexi into their home, they began preparing to let her go. In June 2012, DCFS announced that her birth father would most likely be ready to take her back within six months.
However, when Lexi’s birth father canceled the reunification proceedings three months later, the order came for the young girl to be placed with distant relatives in Utah. This couple is not Native American but is connected to Lexi through marriage by relation to her step-grandfather, the Pages say.
“When we learned it wouldn t be reunification anymore, it felt like why wouldn’t we fight for her?” Rusty recalls. “To her, we had become mommy and daddy and to us, she was our child.”
“We were attached,” he continues. “And we had seen what happened to Lexi when that attachment was broken and it was a very big deal to us to protect her from that.”
So, the Page family went to court to fight to keep custody of Lexi on the grounds that breaking attachment could cause irreparable harm to the young girl. The couple also argued that as Summer is part South Band Tuscarora Indian, the family would be well equipped to help their daughter remain connected to her native roots.
Leslie Heimov, Executive Director of the Children’s Law Center of California, which has legally represented Lexi since 2011, maintains that the girl has already formed an attachment to the Utah family over three years of visits. She adds that the transition to Utah will give Lexi the chance to grow up with a biological half-sister who is also under the extended family’s care and an additional sibling who lives in the area.
“This child has a very strong attachment to other loving family members and siblings who are now her caregivers,” Heimov tells PEOPLE. “So that level of trauma that one would think of when a child is taken from their primary attachment and then put in a home with strangers is very different than what we’re talking about here.”
“This has been a very gradual transition taking her from one familiar loving family to another familiar loving family,” she continues.
Lexi’s birth father, who has not terminated his parental rights, decided to stop reunification efforts after growing frustrated at all the red tape, according to Indian Country Today Media Network.
After being released from prison for selling stolen auto parts in December 2011, he was given a “case plan” – which is a series of checklists, forms and services mandated by the court, including parenting classes, drug testing and counseling, according to a story on the website.
He met some of the requirements – parenting classes and other mandated programs – but others were difficult, according to Indian Country. Among them: Some of the court-ordered class were offered only during his work day (he’s a mechanic), and he could not take off because he had just gotten hired; he did not like the court-ordered therapist he was sent to, but was not given the opportunity to find another one. He went for his regularly scheduled drug testing, but missed an appointment, which was marked as a “positive” test under California law.
After 18 months, he became “tired and fed up” with the endless checklists and requirements and in the summer of 2013, he requested his daughter be placed with his relatives in Utah so he could have some contact with her, the story says.
In 2014 the California Court of Appeals ruled that Lexi could stay with the Pages as they continued to fight for custody. Then, a decision earlier this month ordered the Los Angeles County of Children and Family Services to place Lexi with the Utah family.
The court ordered that the Pages could not tell Lexi or their biological children Maddie, 9, Caleb, 6, and Zoey, 2, about the order, leaving all four children blindsided by the arrival of DCFS on Monday.
“My biggest fear is that she will think we gave up on her,” Rusty says. “We will go to the ends of the earth for her and if we don’t get her back now I hope she will go online in 10 years and see that we fought for her and we’re still fighting and know that she can always come home.”
With additional reporting from LINDSAY KIMBLE