IN the legal documentation that came before the U.S. Supreme Court, she is simply known as “Baby Girl.” That's where the simplicity ends.
At 3 years old, Veronica has been at the center of an adoption case so controversial that even after a ruling Tuesday from the nation's highest court, the toddler's fate isn't clear. Still, the court's decision in this high-stakes tug-of-war that has roots in Oklahoma was the right one and, we hope, will jump-start efforts to return the girl to her adoptive parents.
Every adoption case has its nuances. Veronica's case didn't initially appear to be unusually complicated. The mother and father, who were both living in Oklahoma, weren't married; the father had not even feigned interest. He offered no support for mother or baby and told the mother via text message before the baby's birth that he relinquished his rights. The mother, working through an adoption agency, selected a South Carolina couple to become the baby's adoptive parents. They attended the birth in Oklahoma.
It wasn't until the South Carolina couple pursued legal adoption proceedings in their home state that the father objected. In seeking custody of Veronica, he sought to use his family's American Indian heritage as a legal defense under the Indian Child Welfare Act. No matter that the claim was a bit of stretch — Veronica is 3/256th Cherokee — a South Carolina judge gave her to the biological dad she had never met. She was 27 months old.
Supreme Court justices voting with the majority this week saw through the manipulation of the act the father sought as his protection. The law was designed to make sure children of Indian descent weren't wrongly removed from their biological families based on “cultural insensitivity and biases.” That wasn't the case here, where justices pointed out that the father abandoned his daughter and never had custody.
The travesty of this case is that the state court in South Carolina ever saw fit to remove Veronica from the only parents she had ever known in favor of a man whose behavior in no way entitled him the honor of being someone's dad. Now she faces the possibility of being moved again.
It's understandable — perhaps even laudable — that the Cherokee Nation and other tribes want to preserve their heritage. Of course they prefer children of Indian descent to be raised in families with tribal ties so they can learn and appreciate their ancestry. Many families, regardless of ethnicity, want their children to have strong knowledge of and ties to their family history. But here's the bigger question: At what cost?
There's a mismatch between the number of American Indian children needing adoption and the population of American Indians. That's true in other minority races. Such children waiting for an ancestry match may never see the “gotcha day” so many children and families long for. Is the small hope they face for the match paramount to the need for a loving family, no matter the ethnicity? Loving parents should trump all.
Policy, especially when it comes to child welfare, never accounts for all the what-ifs and nuances. How many times have we seen a rule, policy or law trump the best interest of the child with tragic or devastating consequences?
Veronica's story isn't over because the South Carolina court could still decide to give custody to another family member of the father or someone else of American Indian heritage. The court should decide that “Baby Girl” Veronica has already paid a too-high price for the sins of her father and return her once and for all to the home of her two loving parents.