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Kenna’s Story

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Baby Kenna at four days old

Shared by Kenna’s Adoptive Mother

Adoption was always a part of my life. My mom was adopted as a teenager and I just knew that I would adopt at some point in my life. Matter of fact, at the age of 22, I told my soon-to-be fiancĂ© that I couldn’t marry him unless he would be willing to adopt a child. He was willing and we were married soon after!

We adopted our first daughter, after six years of marriage. When she turned one, we began praying and searching for our second child. After five years of searching, our prayers were answered! We were called about a baby that was due in one week.

We were told the baby was Native American and the birth mother had developed an adoption plan and with great love and sacrifice was making the best choice for her child. Together, we found each other and our precious little girl was born exactly one week after our first call. We had our little girl in our arms when she was four days old.

We loved her before we even met her and then seeing her for the first time, we knew it was meant to be. Our family was complete. She was exactly who we had been searching and praying for and we couldn’t wait to bring her home.

Once we got back home, we began working with our state’s attorney in order to finalize our adoption. A couple of weeks passed and we received the worst possible news. Kenna’s birth mother was a registered tribal member and the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) would apply to our adoption plan.

We were told there was no good chance of keeping our daughter and that our options were
  1. Keep her with you and try to proceed with the adoption.
  2. Place her in a foster care while we try to proceed with the adoption. This was so we wouldn’t get any more attached.
  3. Disrupt the adoption and just give her back despite the birth mother’s wishes.
Of course we were going to fight for her. She was our daughter!

Our first step was for the birth mother to appear before tribal court and sign her rights away. She had already signed rights in her home state as well as our home state, yet this was not sufficient. She had to relive her decision all over again and stand before the Tribal Judge (who we were told was not even Native American).

She is a strong, courageous woman, she sought the best for her daughter and it was with great love and sacrifice that she made an adoption plan. She choose the family she wanted for her child, yet her decision was being questioned.

Seven months after giving birth, she was able to go to court. The judge granted her petition to surrender her parental rights! As our ICWA attorney stated we were rounding second base! But, the tribe still had a say as to where our baby would live. Their preference is for “their” children to remain on the reservation, or with other Native American families.

The Kelley Family

My husband and I are not Native Americans. Our chances of succeeding in her adoption were slim, but we continued on. Due to some adoption agency problems, it took months to secure an attorney to try our case. We are now on attorney number five. Attorney #1 was the birth-state attorney, #2 was our home-state attorney, #3 was our ICWA attorney, #4 was our first tribal court attorney who represented the birth mother in terminating her rights and therefore could not represent us and #5 was our tribal court attorney needed in order to finalize the adoption.

Kenna was 12 months old when Attorney #5 was hired. It took 10 more long, anxious months before we received a final court date. Finally, we could finalize the birth mother’s wishes and our family could be safe and secure.

There was one document that was crucial in our finalizing the adoption. It was a letter from the tribe’s social services department stating they would release Kenna for adoption. They continued to tell our attorney that they didn’t have anything to do with this child, but they wouldn’t place this in writing.

Our attorney tried for two months to get this document. We were told to go ahead and fly out and proceed with the hearing even without this document. Thankfully, they sent a generic letter the day before our court date! It wasn’t really what the judge had asked for but we were hoping it would do. Kenna was 22 months old at this point.

Our first “official” family photo – Kenna is now 22 months old!

We were told she would have to be present in court and that we should be prepared to leave her with the tribe. We all walk into the court room anxious and our stomach in knots. We were now standing face to the face with the very person that could turn our lives completely upside down. We were standing there knowing that a birth mother’s loving choice for her unborn child could be completely dismissed because of an out-dated federal law.

The judge granted our petition! Although our story has a happy ending, words cannot adequately explain what pain we went through to get to that very moment. There were not enough tears of joy to relieve the pain we endured. We will have those memories with us for the rest of our life.

Our families, friends and even acquaintances were affected. I didn’t realize how much until a family member told us how incredibly upset they were. They couldn’t believe why a tribe could determine what was best for a child when the birth mother had already stated what she wanted. We continued to hear this over and over. Why did the tribe’s decision trump Kenna’s own birth mother?

Our journey was not easy and we wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone. Through all the prayers and tears, we heard over and over again how someone needs to take a long hard look at this law. Any law that evokes such incredible hardship on innocent, loving people needs to be carefully reconsidered.

Kenna and her big sister

Our 6-year-old daughter would wake up in the middle of the night crying hysterically concerned that the tribe would take her baby sister away. Try explaining ICWA to a 6-year-old. To helplessly watch your daughter struggle with a harsh reality of losing someone she loves dearly was the worst thing I have ever endured.

We continuously reaffirmed to our oldest daughter that Kenna knew how much she loved her and that God was in control. We prayed and had great faith that our family would be whole.

Have you ever gone into your child’s room just to snuggle a little more with them? Probably. But how about doing this knowing how few nights you may have left to snuggle and realizing every night is one less night. I would go in while Kenna was sleeping and just hold her tight, matter of fact, most nights I brought her in to bed with us just so we would be close.

Have you ever felt like you didn’t spend enough time with our child? Saying, I should have done this or that? Probably. But what about realizing that there’s a chance you won’t have any more time to spend with your child? Did she get enough love from us? Will she remember me? How can I love her more so she won’t forget me? What influence did we have on her little life?

Have you ever searched for the perfect gift for your child? Probably. But what about searching for a goodbye gift? What do you give your child to tell them how much you love them and always will? Not just a thing but a memory that you hope will last. A gift you hope they will be able to keep if they are taken from you.

It has been nearly two years since our adoption was finalized and I’m still crying as I type our story. The pain is still so fresh.

Have you ever kissed your baby goodbye? Probably many times. But you get to say, “Mommy will be right back.” How do you prepare yourself for that last kiss goodbye when you can’t say I’ll be right back? YOU CAN’T!

The Kelley Family (2012)

We understand the premise of ICWA and how it came to be but times have changed! This law must be rewritten to protect the children as well as birth parents rights. Shouldn’t the biological families be able to decide what they feel is best for their child? Why should a tribe dictate this for them?

ICWA is supposedly meant to protect children. In our case, it wasn’t about ‘protection.’ It was about a law that required tribal approval and jurisdiction. Approval and jurisdiction that circumvented a birth parent’s right to protect their child and a birth parent’s right to choose a better life for their child. Thankfully, Kenna’s story has a happy ending. However, our family supports the mission of the Coalition on behalf of all the families that suffer at the hand of the Indian Child Welfare Act.