LOS ANGELES — Rusty and Summer Page say they miss tucking their foster child into bed and giving her kisses months after the part-Native American girl was wrenched from their care.
On Friday, the couple continued their legal battle to return 6-year-old Lexi to California.
Lexi, who is 1/64th Choctaw, was taken from her foster home north of Los Angeles earlier this year and placed with distant relatives in Utah under a decades-old federal law designed to keep Native American families together.
An attorney for the Pages asked a state appeals court to reverse a lower court ruling that ordered the family to surrender the girl.
The lower court made "fundamental legal errors" and failed to take into account the girl's bond with her foster parents and siblings, said attorney Lori Alvino McGill.
A representative for Lexi didn't deny the close relationship, but argued it was the right decision to reconnect Lexi with her tribal roots.
"She's doing well. She's adjusting," attorney Christopher Blake told a three-judge panel, which has up to 60 days to decide.
The appellate court also heard from a lawyer for Lexi's biological father, who asked the judges to take his point of view into consideration. Two of the judges balked.
"His conduct is reprehensible," said presiding Justice Paul Turner, adding that Lexi's father made "bad choices" by not caring for her.
The mother of the Utah family that Lexi is living with declined to comment Friday, saying she's bound by court orders not to discuss the case. The Associated Press isn't naming the woman to protect the girl's identity.
The case is one of dozens brought by foster families since the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in the late 1970s. Lawmakers found that Native American families were broken up at disproportionately high rates, and that cultural ignorance and biases within the child welfare system were largely to blame.
Lexi was 17 months old when she was removed from the custody of her mother, who had drug-abuse problems. Her father has a criminal history, according to court records.
Although foster care is supposed to be temporary, the Pages want to adopt Lexi and for years have fought efforts under the federal act to place the girl with relatives of her father, who is part Choctaw.
The Pages have said the law is outdated and misapplied. Lower courts found the Pages had not proven Lexi would suffer emotional harm by the transfer and, in March, the California Supreme Court refused to intervene.
The Choctaw Nation has said the girl had long-time contact with her Utah relatives, who spoke to her online and frequently drove out to see her.
While some other tribes use a blood quantum to determine eligibility, the Choctaw Nation is among a handful of tribes that determines eligibility for membership by tracing a person's lineage to a member of an original roll of tribal members.
Lexi is now living in Utah with relatives of her father who are not Native Americans.
Dozens of supporters turned out for the latest court hearing, waving banners that read: "Let Lexi Speak" and "Bring Lexi Home."
The Pages said they have not heard from Lexi in nearly three months in what they described as "81 days of both torment and hope."
The family is hopeful the judges "will look at the facts and decide to bring Lexi home once and for all to her family, home to where she wants to be," Rusty Page told reporters after the hearing.
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AP writers Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona contributed to this report.