Today I want to give a summary of the foster care case happening out in California involving a family from Grace Church and the ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act). I—along with many other pastors—have encouraged people to sign a petition about this case, so I think it requires some more explanation, and then I will close with seven recommended posts to read on the ICWA and Lexi.
The gist of the story: Lexi, a six-year-old girl in Los Angeles who had been in foster care since she was seventeen-months old, was placed with a family from Grace Church (where John MacArthur pastors) for the last four years. The family, the Pages, began the process of adopting Lexi after her biological parents both ceased reunification efforts.
In a typial foster-adopt situation, here is what happens: the court would appoint the child an attorney/advocate, who would meet with her, meet with the foster-adopt parents, and meet with any other extended family who want to pursue adoption. The child’s advocate then makes a recommendation to the court based on what would be in the child’s best interest and the court gives its verdict.
But because Lexi is Native American (she is 1/64 Choctaw), the LA County Department of Family and Children’s Services did not follow this approach. Because of the ICWA—a federal law which mandates that in the adoption proceedings of a Native American child that the Indian Tribe get the final say in their placement—the LA County DFCS moved to block the adoption in court, and remove Lexi to extended family in Utah.
Three different times trial courts cited the ICWA and sided with DFCS in wanting Lexi moved to Utah, but the first two times the court was reversed on appeal. The third decision is being appealed now, but while the appeal was pending, DFCS transferred Lexi to Utah.
Now if this were just about one girl, one family, and one church, I probably wouldn’t be blogging on it. But there are several elements of this case that intersect a biblical world view, so I want to address them here.
Every story has two sides, but that doesn’t make both of them correct
First, many people have pointed out that the goal of foster care is to reunite families, not to pursue adoption. Thus, the idea goes, the Pages are in the wrong here for trying to adopt Lexi, and turning this whole thing into a media circus, and causing more harm than good for her (here is an example of this version of the story).
But just because there are two sides to a story doesn’t mean both are correct. While the goal of foster care is most certainly to reunite families, in this instance years had gone by without Lexi’s family successfully pursuing reunification. At some point, it really is in a child’s best interest to have a permanent situation with a family that has raised her, rather than being moved to second-cousins whom she has never lived with. Courts and social workers should be allowed to make that decision, but in cases involving the ICWA they are essentially bared from asking that question.
The judges of the California Appellate Court seem aware of that reality. In fact, it is not fair to blame the Pages for prolonging this process, because it was in fact the appellate court that wrote:
We recognize that a final decision regarding Alexandria’s adoptive placement will be further delayed as a result of our determination of the merits of this appeal. That delay is warranted by the need to insure that the correct legal standard is utilized in deciding whether good cause has been shown that it is in the best interest of Alexandria to depart from the ICWA’s placement preferences.
(Here is the full opinion; link goes to pdf download).
The worst part of American History
The most sinful part of American history has been our nation’s unbiblical obsession over classifying people by race. From slavery to “separate but equal,” our country has often defined people’s rights based upon the perceived race in their blood.
This goes against a biblical world view because the Scriptures teach that there is only one race—the human race. A few years ago I heard Thabiti Anyabwile make an observation that has stuck with me: whenever societies classify people by race, they always to do it to take away rights, not to give them. In other words, the very concept of race results in the exploitation of the powerless.
Such is the case with ICWA (for a history of the ICWA and how it intersects with Lexi’s case, read the last half of this story). When it was passed in 1978, some estimates were that one-third of Indian children were being removed from reservations by social services. This law was meant to stop that.
But overtime the protections of social services have changed, and the impacts of the law have likewise changed. For example, in Lexi’s case her father tried to pursue reunification, but failed to meet the criteria from social services to ensure Lexi would go into a stable home. It was then he realized that the ICWA could in a sense by-pass the reunification efforts, and place Lexi with his family without having to go through the county system (this is described in detail here).
The result is that because Lexi is 1/64 Indian (which she likely doesn’t even know), the laws meant to ensure she has a stable family do not apply to her. This is evidence that the sins of racism in our country’s past still haunt us today.
Seven articles to read if you want more information on Lexi’s case and the ICWA:
(Click on the blue words to go to the linked posts)
1. George Will explains why the ICWA is a “most pernicious” law and should be overturned. If you are going to read one thing on this issue, I recommend this article:
By treating children, however attenuated or imaginary their Indian ancestry, as little trophies for tribal power, the ICWA discourages adoptions by parents who see only children, not pawns of identity politics.
He concludes by saying that the ICWA should be “overturned or revised before more bodies and hearts are broken.”
2. Years before Lexi’s case became news, The Washington Post ran an editorial calling for courts to rein in the ICWA. They concluded with this line:
Lawmakers surely did not mean to protect the rights of Native American biological parents to the point that a child’s unwed, absent father can undo an adoption that her biological mother and legal custodian determined to be in her best interests, merely because she has a drop of Native American blood in her.
3. The Daily Mail (a London news source) wrote about Lexi’s case, including an interview with one of her case workers who said that the way the DCFS handled this case was appalling because it, “hid key-facts, overlooked damning visitation reports, and refused to put the child’s best interests first.”
4. This is also the sentiment of the NY Post columnist Naomi Riley. She writes an important article that describes how the ICWA is actually hindering the adoption of many Native American children into families that would otherwise care for them. She asks:
What would make a state official take a 6-year-old girl from a family she has lived with for four years to place her with a distantly related (through her paternal step-grandfather) couple in another state? An obsession with racial identity, a commitment to political correctness and adherence to a deeply unjust law called the Indian Child Welfare Act.
5. The LA Times shows that the concept of “foster-adoption” in Los Angeles is functionally broken, and in cases where ICWA is involved, it is nearly impossible (this story also has the tidbit that the Page’s lawyer used to clerk for Justice Ginsburg).
6. Al Mohler spoke about this case and ICWA on The Briefing (3 minute audio clip). His take-away: that the federalization of social services leads to a situation where people make their careers off of elevating legal principles above the needs of individual children. It simply is not possible to have a federal law designed to stop abuse on an Indian reservation be used by county social services to decide what is best for a six-year-old.
So what are we to do with all this? Well, we should pray for the following:
- That Lexi would remember the gospel truths she has learned with her family of the last four years.
- That the courts would uphold justice, and that there would be a judge somewhere who would have the ability to do what many people across the political spectrum are calling for: rein in the ICWA.
- That Lexi’s family and church would have confidence in God’s care for his people. If two sparrows cannot be sold, or one sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God knowing about it, is he not in control of this situation?
- That the laws, cultures, and attitudes of our country would move beyond classifying people by race, and instead people would repent from our failure to believe the accounts of the flood and creation in Genesis.
7. Finally, a caution. When a case like this involves a child, and in this case a church that we know and respect, it is very easy to get carried away. Pastor Don Green, himself a former lawyer, gives a very helpful plea to people who care for the Pages to remain balanced in their thinking. He read through the second appellate court order (the one that overturned the trial court’s use of ICWA) and reminds us that these judges are doing a good job of weighing the evidence and working toward balancing a law that seems to be at odds with child welfare. He encourages us to trust the Lord, to view the political future of ICWA as a matter of Christian liberty, and to be very, very cautious about “calls to hasty action based on emotion and partial information”:
Make sure your heart is settled first on Christ and not any human issue of the day. I realize this has been a heart-wrenching case. It’s precisely in such times that we must be most committed to biblical thinking and not simply follow what everyone else is doing.