The tug-of-war case over a 4-year-old Cherokee girl finally ended on Monday when she was rightfully returned to her non-Cherokee adoptive parents. The long, bitter custody battle raised several questions of parental and Native American rights, jurisdictions, and the federal law meant to help keep Native American tribes together.
Veronica, whose biological father Dusten Brown is a member of the Cherokee nation, was given up for adoption by her non-Cherokee birth mother, Christina Maldonado. When asked by Maldonado whether he would rather pay child support or give up his paternal rights, Brown reportedly told her via text message that "he would rather give up parental rights than pay child support." Through an agency, Maldonado found a couple in South Carolina she liked, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who agreed to an open adoption. Supporting Maldonado during the last months of her pregnancy, the Capobiancos were even in the delivery room for the birth and Matt cut the umbilical cord. Brown was "out of the picture" and "did not ask after her or even whether she had been born healthy," according to Maldonado.
A month prior to Veronica's birth, Maldonado, through her lawyer, sent a letter notifying the Cherokee Nation of her adoption plans. At the time, the tribe said it had no record of Dusten Brown as a tribal member and allowed the adoption to go forward. Four months after the birth of Veronica, he was served with papers notifying him of adoption. Despite signing off on them, he filed a formal objection days later invoking the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and argued that he did not know the mother would give her up for adoption when he signed away his parental rights. The ICWA was established in 1978 in response to high rates of Native American children being improperly removed from their families and given to white adoptive and foster parents.
"I just figured the best interest would be ... for [Christina] to have the full custody of her, but for me to still be in the picture — be able to come visit and stuff," Brown said. He then sought to gain full custody of Veronica. In December 2011, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act trumped state law and ordered the Capabiancos, who cared for the girl from birth until she was 27-months-old, to give their daughter to her biological father, who she had never met. In response, the adoptive parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which normally does not hear family law disputes, backed by the birth mother and guardian ad litem, appointed by the South Carolina family court.
After more than an almost a year and half of legal custody battles, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the law did not apply in this case since Brown had been absent from the child's life and did not have previous custody of Veronica. The ruling, however, did not validate Veronica's adoption. The Oklahoma Supreme Court imposed a temporary order keeping Veronica with Brown and his family, which was lifted on Monday, validating the adoption.
Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said he hoped "the Capobiancos would honour their word that Dusten will be allowed to remain an important part of Veronica's life." Despite the fact that Brown was her biological father, he had no intention of raising her before the word "adoption" was uttered. He shouldn't have been able to play the ICWA card when it was. For a little girl who can't possibly understand what's happening, this long, drawn-out battle over who will raise her is heartbreaking, but thankfully, is over. She is now safely in her parents' arms.