The South Carolina Supreme Court declined Wednesday to rehear the case of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, a court battle that began in South Carolina and made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court before being remanded to South Carolina for a final ruling. The S.C. Supreme Court ordered that the adoption of “Baby Veronica” should move forward in family court. That expected procedural ruling – along with the court’s controversial decision earlier this month to expedite an adoption process that has been drawn out for far too long – is legally sound and is ultimately in the best interest of the little girl caught in the middle of this custody battle.
The emotional case centers around Matt and Melanie Capobianco’s attempt to adopt a girl of Cherokee heritage, now known around the world as “Baby Veronica.” The 3-year-old girl’s biological father, Dusten Brown, and the Cherokee Nation were requesting the new review – and Native American organizations have said that they will sue over the denial, which they see as a test of tribal sovereignty that could set a precedent for other adoptions.
The James Island couple to whom Veronica will now be returned has attempted to adopt her since she was born after supporting her birth mother through pregnancy. After the the baby’s mother turned down Brown’s marriage proposal, he played no role in her pregnancy and provided no support after the child was born. The Capobiancos, in turn, were in the delivery room when the baby arrived and even assisted in cutting the umbilical cord. Brown had already relinquished his parental rights at the time of her birth. It was – and remains – the wish of the child’s biological mother that the Capobiancos adopt Veronica.
When Brown discovered, however, that Veronica was being adopted rather than reared by her birth mother, he attempted to block the adoption under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), passed in 1978 “in response to the alarmingly high number of Indian children being removed from their homes by both public and private agencies.” The federal law seeks to keep American Indian children with American Indian families, and Brown, who lives in Oklahoma, is a member of the Cherokee Nation. Veronica was 4 months old and living with the Capobiancos when Brown first insisted that he wanted to raise the little girl himself.
By the time the case made it to trial in 2011, Veronica was two years old and had been living with the Capobiancos since birth. The original trial court ordered Veronica returned to Brown, holding that the ICWA dictated that the child, who had lived the first 27 months of her life with her prospective adoptive parents in South Carolina, must now live with her biological father in Oklahoma. The South Carolina Supreme Court subsequently upheld that decision, and Veronica has lived with Brown for the past 18 months while the battle between him and the Capobiancos has continued all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court found the decision of South Carolina’s courts to be in error and returned the case to the S.C. Supreme Court. The majority opinion in a 5-4 ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, held that the ICWA protects the rights of Native American parents to have “continued custody,” and because Brown did not have custody of Veronica to begin with, the law was not applicable to his case. Further, the Supreme Court held that “the ICWA’s primary goal is not implicated when an Indian child’s adoption is voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent with sole custodial rights.” Veronica’s birth mother had sole custodial rights because Brown relinquished his – and then changed his mind.
Thus, if not for a a misapplication of the law by the original court, which was then affirmed by the S.C. Supreme Court, custody of Veronica would never have been transferred from the Capobiancos to Brown to being with, and her young life would not have been disrupted in such a gut-wrenching manner.
Earlier this month, the S.C. Supreme Court, after being handed the case again by the U.S. Supreme Court, reversed itself in a 3-2 decision and ordered that the adoption be finalized. That was the right thing to do for Veronica.
This is not a case that forcibly removes a child from a Native American family without consent – which there is a documented history of in the U.S., and which the ICWA was enacted to prevent. This is a case where an unwed pregnant woman made a deliberate and difficult decision to give her child a better life than she could provide, chose the family that could provide it, and followed the law in doing so. Veronica’s birth mother remains committed to the adoption of her biological daughter by the Capobiancos.
In this case, a biological father who was not present during the pregnancy and provided no support, who voluntarily gave up his parental rights, decided to disrupt an adoption process four months into this child’s life, after she had already begun bonding with her prospective adoptive parents.
In this case, the original court erred, and because of its misinterpretation of the ICWA, a family’s life was disrupted. In reversing its decision in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, the S.C. Supreme Court made the right call in choosing not to further its own misdeed. Yes, Veronica has lived with Dusten Brown for the past 18 months, but wrongfully so, according to the law. No one is making the argument that Brown is an unfit parent, but Veronica spent the first 27 months of her life young life with the Capobiancos experiencing all the bonding moments of infancy and early childhood, and the importance of that time to the child in question cannot be underestimated. And that time, to borrow the language of Justice Alito, was continued custody – until a court made a terrible mistake.
The goal of adoption law is to establish finality and permanency in the lives of children. That is what is in their best interests, as it is in the lives of children who are not adopted – a final, permanent, stable home. The decision of the S.C. Supreme Court in the matter of Baby Veronica is in line with that goal.
According to a report by NPR, “When Veronica was taken from the Capobiancos 18 months ago, there was no transition period, and she cried and screamed when taken away. The Capobiancos have proposed a one- to two-week transition in Oklahoma before taking full custody and have offered to let Brown visit his daughter in South Carolina.”
This case is not a test of tribal sovereignty because there is no violation of the ICWA. This case is about a child for whom a better life was sought by her birth mother and found in the persons of Matt and Melanie Capobianco. In the words of the majority opinion issued by the S.C. Supreme Court, “There is absolutely no need to compound any suffering that Baby Girl may experience through continued litigation.”
Let Veronica go home to the Capobiancos for good.
Amy Lazenby is the associate opinion editor at FITSNews. She is a wife, mother of three and small business owner with her husband who splits her time between South Carolina and Georgia. Follow her on Twitter @Mrs_Laz or email her at [email protected].