WASHINGTON — A federal law intended to keep American Indian families together doesn't apply to a Cherokee father in Oklahoma who never had custody of his daughter before she was given to an adoptive couple in South Carolina, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The 5-4 decision in the case could mean that 3-year-old Veronica, who is now living with her father in Oklahoma, will be returned to the South Carolina couple who raised her for the first 27 months of her life.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to South Carolina courts to determine custody.
Chrissi Nimmo, an attorney for the Cherokee Nation, which is a party in the case, said Tuesday that the tribe would argue the child's best interests would be served by staying with her father.
“This has been a long, emotional case, and it is by no means over,” Nimmo said.
Nimmo said she expected action in the courts relatively soon and that she hoped proceedings wouldn't drag out for years.
The adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, of James Island, S.C., said in a statement, “We are very happy with (the) ruling that came down today.
“The Supreme Court did everything we asked it to do. The decision ... clearly establishes that our adoption should have been approved, and Veronica should never have been taken away from her home and family in the first place. We miss her very much and we are looking forward to the opportunity to see our daughter very soon.”
Law doesn't apply
The high court's ruling turned mostly on a single phrase in the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 — “continued custody.”
Since the biological father didn't have legal or physical custody of the girl when he began his fight against the South Carolina couple's adoption, the federal law meant to keep Indian families intact essentially didn't apply to the case, the court ruled.
The father, Dusten Brown, of Nowata, and the mother of the child never married, and Brown provided no financial support during the pregnancy. He relinquished his parental rights in a text message to the mother, though he said later that he did so thinking that the mother was going to raise the child.
The mother chose a South Carolina couple to adopt the girl, and the couple were present at the child's birth.
However, a family court in South Carolina awarded custody to Brown because of the Indian Child Welfare Act, written at a time when many Indian children were being taken from their homes by public and private welfare agencies. The South Carolina Supreme Court upheld the family court's decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the South Carolina court's interpretation of the Indian Child Welfare Act “would put certain vulnerable children at a great disadvantage solely because an ancestor — even a remote one — was an Indian.”
A biological Indian father “could abandon his child in utero and refuse any support for the birth mother — perhaps contributing to the mother's decision to put the child up for adoption — and then could play his ICWA trump card at the eleventh hour to override the mother's decision and the child's best interests,” the court said.
No statement from Brown was available on Tuesday.
Four justices dissent
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the dissenting opinion that the majority decision distorted the federal law by reading the phrase “continued custody” too literally and out of context with the intent of the law.
The ruling against the Cherokee father, she wrote, “ignores Congress' purpose in order to rectify a perceived wrong that, while heartbreaking at the time, was a correct application of federal law and that in any case cannot be undone.
“Baby Girl has now resided with her father for 18 months. However difficult it must have been for her to leave Adoptive Couple's home when she was just over 2 years old, it will be equally devastating now if, at the age of 3½, she is again removed from her home and sent to live halfway across the country.
“Such a fate is not foreordained, of course. But it can be said with certainty that the anguish this case has caused will only be compounded by today's decision.”
Christy Maldonado, the birth mother, said in a statement, “The Supreme Court has clarified that the Indian Child Welfare Act does not apply to this case, and other cases like this one, where a biological father had no interest in fatherhood before the child's birth, and a single mother like me has made the difficult and personal decision that it's in her child's best interest to be placed with a loving adoptive family.”