The three-year battle for permanent custody of a three-year-old Cherokee toddler who has become known as “Baby Veronica” has ended in favor of the Charleston couple who adopted her.
In the case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Matt and Melanie Capobianco over biological father Dusten Brown of Oklahoma in the child custody case involving three-year old Veronica. Brown, a registered member of the Cherokee Nation, hung his case on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law enacted in 1978 to prevent the breakup of Native American families.
The ruling was made following a three-year legal battle for custody of the child. The Capobiancos traveled to Oklahoma in 2009 to pick up the newborn with plans to adopt the infant. The birth mother had separated from Brown and contacted an adoption agency that eventually reached the Capobiancos. However, four months later, Brown filed for paternity and custody. Brown had initially given up his parental rights to his fiancé.
Brown was able to gain custody of Veronica through South Carolina’s court system. She has lived with her family in Oklahoma for about a year-and-a-half. The custody transfer took place December 31, 2011. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in July that Brown was able to take custody of Veronica under the ICWA.
But the parental rights of the biological father can be terminated, the United States Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, if that father had previously elected to give up those rights.
In the majority opinion Justice Samuel Alito wrote “Contrary to the State Supreme Court’s ruling, rights with respect to an Indian child on a showing that remedial efforts have been made to prevent the “breakup of the Indian family”—is inapplicable when, as here, the parent abandoned the Indian child before birth and never had custody of the child.”
Four justices disagreed with the ruling, arguing that nothing in the ICWA clarifies the situation that would cause Brown to lose his parental rights. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that Veronica is likely to face severe anguish in her future.
“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,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissenting opinion.
Tuesday afternoon, Matt and Melanie Capobianco issued the following statement:
“We are grateful for today’s decision from the Supreme Court, which affirms that the Indian Child Welfare Act did not permit Veronica to be taken away from her adoptive parents. We are also hopeful that today’s decision will prevent the tragic disruption of other adoptions and prevent this heartbreak from happening to other families.”
Christinna Maldanado, Veronica’s birth mother joined with Capobianco’s statement. She granted adoptive rights to the couple and has sided with them all along:
Today’s opinion makes clear that Veronica’s adoption should have been finalized long ago, and gives us all the opportunity to continue fighting for Veronica’s best interests. I’m also hopeful it will spare many other children and families the heartbreak that Veronica, the Capobiancos, and I have had to endure.
Matt and Melanie are part of my family, and they have treated me like part of theirs. I’m hopeful that we will all be reunited with Veronica very soon.”