After a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, the parents of a four-year-old Cherokee girl known as Baby Veronica are back in court again to settle the issue of who will retain custody of the child – her biological father, Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation tribe, or her adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who are white.
Before Baby Veronica was born, her birth mother arranged with the Capobiancos for them to adopt the child, and the couple had custody of the girl for the first two years of her life. When Veronica was a toddler, however, Brown sought and was granted custody of the child under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The ICWA is a federal law enacted in 1978 in an effort to prevent American Indian children from being removed from their homes and placed with foster families or adoptive parents, who were typically white. At the time, a disproportionate number of American Indian children were being removed from their homes and placed with white families, which was thought to threaten the survival of the tribes.
The ICWA created specific procedures that courts must follow when terminating the parental rights of American Indians in adoption cases. The statute also provides that preference should be given to adoptive and foster parents from the child’s own family or tribe where possible, or to members of any American Indian tribe.
A court in South Carolina, where the case was originally heard, interpreted the ICWA in favor of Brown and awarded custody to him. The Capobiancos were ordered to surrender the girl to Brown, who lives in Oklahoma. Baby Veronica, now four years old, has been living with her biological father for the past two years.
The Capobiancos filed an appeal of the custody ruling, which eventually made its way to the United States Supreme Court. In June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that the ICWA should not have been applied to the case because Brown had never had custody of the child before she was adopted by the Capobiancos. Furthermore, because no candidates from a preferred category had stepped forward to adopt the girl at that time, the Court held that the statute did not bat the Capobiancos from adopting her.
Following the Supreme Court decision, the case returned to court in South Carolina, where a judge ruled in favor of the Capobiancos, finding that it would be in the child’s best interests to be in their custody. An Oklahoma court then ordered Brown to surrender the girl to the Capobiancos. Before the transfer occurred, however, the Oklahoma Supreme Court intervened and issued an emergency stay, preventing the transfer from taking place and allowing Brown to file an appeal. The case is currently being heard by an Oklahoma court of appeals.
Seek legal help for child custody issues
The Baby Veronica case provides an extreme example of just how complex child custody disputes can become, particularly when federal law and multiple jurisdictions are involved. If you are involved in a disagreement over child custody or have questions about your rights as a parent, it is important that you seek help from a qualified family law attorney to help protect your interests and those of your children.