By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In the beginning, Thurza was apparently grateful to the DesRochers for taking care of Lalita. Between 1975 and 1977, she wrote them several affectionate letters asking about her daughter and thanking them for keeping her. Evidently still fearful of rumors that someone from the tribe might try to harm Lalita, she wrote in a letter to the DesRochers in September 1976, "Don't let anybody come visit her or take her away from you unless I say so."
Two years after they took Lalita into their household, and after hearing of various hostile confrontations between former Apache Tribal Court judge Anna Early and the House of Samuel about foster care and the adoption of Apache children, the DesRochers decided to begin adoption proceedings. The family, said Nadine DesRochers, was suffering from, among other things, being on an emotional yo-yo.
"We told Thurza, 'We can't do this any longer.' Lita was 2 years old, and she only knew us. We said, 'We're going to give her back to you, or let us adopt her,' because it was hurting the baby. In 1977, we moved to Texas, and she [Thurza] signed the papers."
When the DesRochers made their brief move to Texas, Thurza was married to Hubert Goclanney, also a White Mountain Apache. Lowell Altaha was still on the reservation with his first wife. The DesRochers had legal advice to the effect that, with Thurza's consent, they could adopt the baby in Texas.
According to the DesRochers, all of the appropriate papers were signed, and it was explained to Thurza that she was signing away her parental rights, though Thurza says she didn't understand what she was reading and that she never heard the word "adoption."
The document she signed is titled "Affidavit of Relinquishment of Parental Rights by Mother." In a sworn statement several years later, Thurza said that when she signed the affidavit, she thought she was merely giving the DesRochers temporary custody. The last paragraph of the relinquishment document could have been written in Greek, as far as Thurza's ability to understand it went. The paragraph read:
"I waive the right to issuance, service and return of citation upon me in a suit to terminate the parent-child relationship between the child and me and any other suit affecting the parent-child relationship between the child and me."
In plain English, the paragraph meant that the DesRochers could proceed with the adoption of Lalita without notifying Thurza.
The DesRochers dispute Thurza's claim that the document was not explained to her. Normand DesRochers says that, on the day Thurza signed it, he arrived at her Dallas apartment and spent four hours talking to her husband, Hubert (they've since divorced), while waiting for her to come home from work.
"Hubert had a little bit of college, and when Thurza came home, he said, 'I'm going to read this to you, so you'll understand it,' and then he read it in English. Then he turned to me and said, 'I hope you'll excuse me, but now I'm going to translate it to Apache for her, because I want to be sure she understands what she's doing,' and he read it in Apache."
Nevertheless, Thurza was right about one thing: Nowhere in the document was the word "adoption" used. Soon after Thurza signed the papers, the DesRochers returned to Tucson with Lalita, feeling, no doubt, a great sense of relief.
They believed their problems had finally come to an end. They didn't know that the problems had just begun, and that Thurza and the tribe were going to wage a tenacious war to correct what they regarded as fundamental exploitation and injustice.
@body:"On January 17, 1977," the Arizona Court of Appeals wrote in its 1982 review of the case, "[the DesRochers] filed a joint petition in Texas seeking to terminate Thurza's parental rights and to adopt Lalita. Thurza was never notified of the proceedings, and did not participate in them." On March 1, 1977, the adoption was completed.
When Thurza finally became aware of what had transpired, she filed a habeas corpus action, in effect accusing the DesRochers of stealing her child by legal scheming and of exploiting her ignorance. Ultimately, the Pima County Superior Court avoided those issues, and simply invalidated the adoption on the grounds that Texas did not have the jurisdiction to grant the adoption in the first place. Former Superior Court judge Jack T. Arnold ruled that the DesRochers never established residency in Texas, that there was ample evidence that the DesRochers never intended to live there and, therefore, that the State of Texas did not have the power to grant the adoption.
The DesRochers appealed and lost, and the case was turned over to the White Mountain Apache Tribal Court.
The couple could have sued in tribal court for custody of Lalita, but chose not to. "What chance would we stand?" asks Nadine DesRochers. "The head judge in the tribal court was Anna Early, and we knew she was already against us."
Since there were no other challengers, the tribal court simply ordered Lalita to the custody of her Apache mother. "In the fall of 1982, they [the DesRochers] were supposed to turn her [Lalita] over, and that's when they took a powder," the couple's Tucson-based lawyer, Leighton Rockafellow, says. Nadine DesRochers admits that the family moved frequently to prevent tribal authorities from taking the child back to the reservation. According to a report prepared by the Pima County Adult Probation Department, "T[he DesRochers'] motivation for running was fear that [Lalita] would be killed [by Lowell Altaha's in-laws]. They felt that every day she was not found would be another day she would be alive."