The U.S. Supreme Court this morning issued its decision on Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, a case involving Veronica, a three-year-old girl in the midst of a custody battle between her biological father Dusten Brown, and Matt and Melanie Capobianco, the couple who began caring for Veronica since birth. RadioLab's Tim Howard said that the case first "struck him as a sad but seemingly straightforward custody dispute." However, because Brown is part of the Cherokee nation, the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) came into play. The Act was passed by Congress in order to "help preserve Native American families by erecting high hurdles for ending the parental rights of Indian parents and to discourage adoptions outside tribes."
Veronica was born to Brown and Christinna Maldonado in 2009. Although they were engaged, they broke up before she was born. Maldonado asked Brown whether he would rather pay child support or give up his paternal rights and Brown reportedly texted her to say "that he would rather give up parental rights than pay child support." Maldonado signed custody over to the Capobiancos who were there for Veronica's birth and began raising her. Brown, however, denied that he meant to allow Veronica to be put up for adoption and challenged the adoption proceedings under the ICWA. A family court in South Carolina ruled the ICWA barred adoption and the South Carolina Supreme Court gave Brown custody in 2011. Veronica has been living with him ever since but the U.S Supreme Court today overturned the South Carolina Supreme Court's ruling, paving the way for her to return to the Capobianco's.
SCOTUSBlog's Mike Gottlieb summarises today's decision by the Court:
"The Court had before it two competing interpretations of the ICWA: the more expansive version, advocated by the biological father, argued that ICWA applies whenever a court is considering whether to terminate parental rights of a Native American parent; the competing interpretation, advanced by the adoptive parents, argues that ICWA’s coverage is limited to the kinds of cases that Congress most likely had in mind when it passed ICWA — namely, those in which social workers and other government officials are seeking to remove Native American children from an existing Native American family. Today, in a five-to-four opinion, the Court adopted the latter interpretation."
Justice Alito, writing the Court's opinion said:
"Under the State Supreme Court's reading...a biological Indian father could abandon his child in utero and refuse any support for the birth mother ... and then could play his ICWA trump card at the eleventh hour to override the mother's decision and the child's best interests. If this were possible, many prospective adoptive parents would surely pause before adopting any child who might possibly qualify as an Indian under the ICWA."
The Supreme Court, however, did not grant the Capobianco's adoption of Veronica, but instead returned the issue to the South Carolina state courts for further proceedings.