Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation, invoked federal law to stop the adoption arranged by the girl's non-Indian mother when she was pregnant and the Charleston, S.C.-area couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco. The couple was present at Veronica's birth in Oklahoma. Brown had never met his daughter and, after the mother rebuffed his marriage proposal, played no role during the pregnancy and paid no child support after Veronica was born.
But when Brown found out Veronica was going to be adopted, he objected and said the law favored the girl living with him and growing up learning tribal traditions.
South Carolina courts agreed and Brown took Veronica, now 3, back to Oklahoma at the end of 2011, even though she had lived with the Capobiancos for the first 27 months of her life.
The ruling returns the case to South Carolina court.
Sotomayor said "the anguish this case has caused will only be compounded" by the court's ruling if another change is made in the girl's living arrangements.
"Baby Girl has now resided with her father for 18 months," she said. "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 three and a half, she is again removed from her home and sent to live halfway across the country."
Megan Lindsey, director of public policy and education for the National Council For Adoption, cheered the court's decision. "This is a wonderful victory for children and adoption," she said. "The court chose to prioritize and protect the best interests of children, preserving culture as a priority, but promising a balanced interpretation that allows a child's broader best interests to be considered."
Other children's advocates didn't like the ruling, however.
"This ruling threatens to undermine the values and practices that have become central to effective child welfare practice, in particular the important role that families and communities play in determining the best interests of children in their care," said MaryLee Allen, director of child welfare and mental health for the Children's Defense Fund.
Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said the court's decision leaves the ICWA in place, which he called "the most important law to protect Native children and families."
"While we are pleased the court has upheld ICWA, we're very disappointed for Dusten, Veronica, and the Brown family that the court has ruled to send the case back to the South Carolina courts on a technicality," Keel said. "However, the courts in South Carolina have previously affirmed that Dusten Brown is Veronica's father and that he is a fit parent. We are confident that his parental rights will be upheld, and that Veronica will stay with her family."
The case is Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 12-399.
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