Utah Supreme Court to consider severing Navajo kids' adoption

Tribe claims the state didn't follow guidelines.
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After eight foster placements in nine months, Ella and Anthony finally found a home -- and a new family -- with Ricardo and Suzi Ramos.

But a court battle that pits the state child welfare process against a federal law aimed at protecting the heritage of American Indians threatens to disrupt their young lives once again.

On June 1, the Utah Supreme Court will hear arguments brought by the Navajo Nation, which wants to undo the siblings' adoption and return them to the reservation, where a tribal court would decide who should care for them.

In court filings, the Navajo Nation argues the state violated procedures outlined under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) designed to protect and preserve identities of American Indian tribes. Those violations include failure to give the Nation adequate notice, to find a proper American Indian home or transfer the case to tribal authority.

Attorney Wesley Hutchins, who represents the Ramoses, argues that "the Nation has taken a backseat role for the majority of the proceedings, only asserting legal error when it has been dissatisfied with the outcome."

"There was just a long period of inactivity," he said Wednesday during a news conference. "They have plenty of chances and opportunities" to intervene but the Navajo Nation did so too late -- a point contested by the tribe, which says the act includes no time limits for intervening.

The case was originally heard by 3rd District Judge Andrew Valdez. A lower court ruled that Valdez properly followed the act in his decisions.

The Ramoses moved to Utah five years ago and signed up for the state's foster care program, they said Wednesday. Over the past 3 ½ years, they have hosted 15 different children in their home, ranging from a newborn to a 12-year-old. Those children's stays ranged from several days to 10 months.

In December 2006, Ella, then 11 months old, was placed with the Salt Lake City couple. Nine days later, her then-7-year-old brother Anthony joined the family.

The state Department of Child and Family Services first became involved with their mother, a Navajo living in Salt Lake County, after a sibling was found wandering the streets late at night.

After being removed from her care, the children bounced around; one placement with an aunt lasted just three weeks, the Ramoses said.

The parental rights of the children's mother were terminated in May 2007. The rights of their father, who is Latino, were terminated in October 2007. Neither participated in the court proceedings regarding the two children's placements, the Ramoses said.

The Navajo Nation, represented by Moab attorney Keith Fitzgerald, said in court filings the children's grandmother tried repeatedly to get them placed with her.

Ella and Anthony have three siblings, including one in an adoptive home in Salt Lake City that they see frequently. Another is with a biological father. A third sibling, now 2, is believed to be with their mother.

During court proceedings in their case, the couple said DCFS looked for placements that met ICWA guidelines -- a relative, other tribal members or another Indian family -- but were unsuccessful. There are only a handful of American Indian foster homes in the valley, they said, which is one reason they decided to bring their case to public attention.

"There is a need out there," Suzi Ramos said. "I would hate for any of this to stop people from doing this."

The Ramoses began adoption proceedings for Ella and Anthony in January 2008, which prompted the Navajo Nation to file a petition with the Utah Court of Appeals. The petition was rejected, and the adoption was approved by Valdez on Feb. 21, 2008.

Two weeks later, the Navajo Nation appealed.

Months have now passed. The Ramoses say the children have overcome attachment and abuse-related problems -- Ella cried constantly and Anthony had nightmares and expected to have to leave -- and are thriving in their home, which includes son Aiden, 2, and adopted son Luca, 6.

The Navajo Nation argues the state's failures have "condoned inappropriate cultural separation of the children from their extended family in the Nation ... and sought to impair the unique value of the Navajo culture."

From the start, the Ramoses said they worked to provide a culturally sensitive environment for the children, though their efforts to connect with relatives got no response. They reached out to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Walk In Center in Salt Lake City and an American Indian liaison with DCFS.

Anthony participated in Lil' Feathers, a drum and dance group, and worked with a reading tutor who used traditional American Indian stories in the sessions. Now 9, he is enrolled in Dual Immersion Academy, where he is learning Spanish. Ella, now 3, is in preschool.

"I can't imagine our life without them or their life without us," Suzi Ramos said.