Supporters of Baby Veronica and her biological father said they fear the girl will lose her connection to her Cherokee heritage if a South Carolina couple are allowed to regain custody of the now 3-year-old girl.
During a rally Monday at the state Capitol, a group of supporters called on authorities to follow the spirit of the Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in the late 1970s to keep American Indian families together.
Sarah Adams-Cornell, one of the organizers of Monday's rally, said the Baby Veronica case is important for Indians across the nation because the adoption issue is a longtime problem among Indian children.
Veronica is currently living somewhere in Oklahoma with the parents of Dusten Brown, her biological father. The child was adopted by Matt and Melanie Capobianco at birth.
The Capobiancos raised Veronica until she was 2, at which time Brown regained custody after a lengthy court fight.
Brown, who regained custody in December 2011, claims he was tricked into signing adoption papers at the time of Veronica's birth. The adoption was privately arranged.
“It's been a problem for a long time, this is just one of the first cases that has had this much media attention,” Adams-Cornell said. “It happens frequently.”
Adams-Cornell said a study done in the late 1970s shows that the problem has been ongoing for decades. She said she believes that little has changed since the study was done more than three decades ago.
“The study showed that up to 35 percent of native children were living outside of their home,” Adams-Cornell said. “And of those children, 85 percent were not living in native homes.
“That means that about a quarter of a generation of native people were losing their culture, entirely.”
During Monday's rally, several attendees spoke to the crowd. The group also danced as different supporters drummed or sang traditional Cherokee songs.
Shannon Lusty, of Oklahoma City, said she has ancestral ties to four Indian tribes, but knows little of her culture.
Lusty said she wasn't raised in a traditional Indian household and that she has spent many years as an adult trying to learn more about her own heritage and culture. She said she was raised by her father but her family “was always separated.”
“My dad and his uncle were raised together at Carter Seminary boarding school along with, like, four or five other brothers and sisters,” Lusty said. “I've never seen them.”
Lusty said she began researching her heritage and going to whatever meetings she could attend to make connections. She said she fears Baby Veronica will experience the same thing she has if the Capobiancos are given custody.
“When I was a kid I didn't care ... I was raised around white kids and Mexican kids,” she said. “And then I grew up and started realizing, ‘I'm Indian. I'm different.'”
Adams-Cornell said stories like Lusty's are not uncommon among Indians, especially those adopted by non-Indian parents.
“We found over and over ... these children were looking for their culture ... they're trying to get back and find their families,” Adams-Cornell said. “They felt a hole.”
As it stands now, Brown has custody of his daughter — but that status is anything but secure.
Brown has an arrest warrant out of South Carolina for ignoring a judge's order to return the child to the Capobiancos.
Gov. Mary Fallin has said she will not act on the warrant until Brown is given the chance to fight extradition. He has a hearing Sept. 12 in Sequoyah County.
Fallin said that she wants the two sides to work things out and find the best solution for the child. But the governor acknowledged that finding such a compromise will be difficult.
Brown and the Capobiancos both were in state and tribal courts Friday, but the proceedings were not publicly discussed due to a gag order.
“To be clear, the legal system cannot deliver a happy ending in this case,” Fallin said in a prepared statement. “Only Mr. Brown and the Capobianco family can do that.”
Contributing: Tulsa World Staff Writer Michael Overall