In a victory for adoptive parents, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a federal law protecting Native American families cannot not be used as “a trump card” to block the adoption of an Indian child that would otherwise take place under South Carolina state law.
The 5-4 ruling in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl disappointed many child-welfare advocates, who argued that the child — who is 1.2 percent Cherokee — must be placed with her biological father, who is an enrolled member of that tribe in Oklahoma.
But the high court ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) could not be used as an 11th-hour “trump card” to override the child’s best interests and desires of her birth mother, who arranged for the adoption after the father said he would rather give up his parental rights than pay child support.
ICWA was not intended to require a child “to be taken, at the age of 27 months, from the only parents she had ever known, and handed over to her biological father, who had attempted to relinquish his parental rights and who had no prior contact with the child,” said the ruling, written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito Jr., and joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Stephen G. Breyer.
The ruling reversed the South Carolina Supreme Court, and sent the case back to the lower courts “for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”
The individuals in the case are not named, but after the ruling, birth mother Christina Maldonado and adoptive parents Matt and Melanie Capobianco said in statements they were pleased with it.
“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,” Ms. Maldonado said, according to WCIV-TV in Charleston, S.C.
“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,” Ms. Maldonado added.
“This has been a living hell for them,” said Jessica Munday, a friend and spokeswoman for the Capobiancos, who live on James Island, S.C.
The National Council for Adoption and American Association of Adoption Attorneys were among the supporters of the Capobiancos, as was a court-appointed guardian ad-litem who visited the families and concluded the child was best served by staying with her adoptive parents.
However, organizations for child-welfare workers, child advocates, and Indian tribes who supported the father, Dusten Brown, were dismayed by the ruling.
“Although we are deeply disappointed that this case is not over, Dusten will continue to fight for his daughter and we believe that he will prevail and that Veronica will stay with her family,” said the National Indian Child Welfare Association.
“We are confident that his parental rights will be upheld” by the South Carolina courts, said Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Congress enacted ICWA in 1978 in the wake of illegal seizures and subsequent adoptions of Indian children by social workers and other non-Indians, resulting in family breakups and decimation of tribal populations. ICWA protects Indian families by saying that their parental rights cannot be terminated unless a child is in danger; social services must be given to families to help them stay together; and if an Indian child is to be adopted, preference is given to extended family and tribal members.