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Baby Veronica: Supreme Court rules for adoptive parents in wrenching case

The Supreme Court decided that since the father never had custody of Baby Veronica prior to litigation in the case, a federal law upholding the rights of Native-American parents offered him no protection.

By Staff writer / June 25, 2013

Melanie and Matt Capobianco talk to reporters in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 25. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this morning that 3 1/2 year-old Veronica, being raised by her biological father, should not have been taken from the couple who had cared for her since just after birth under a law aimed at keeping Native American families together.

Harriet McLeod/Reuters

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Washington

The US Supreme Court ruled in a heart-wrenching child custody case on Tuesday, voting 5 to 4 that the toddler at the center of the dispute should be raised by her adoptive parents rather than her biological father.

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The court decided that since the father had never had physical custody of the little girl prior to litigation in the case, a federal law that upholds the rights of Native-American parents offered him no protection.

The decision means that the girl faces the prospect of, once again, being uprooted from a family and being sent under court order to live with someone different in a different state.

The girl, named Veronica, had been raised for more than two years by her adoptive parents in South Carolina. After her biological father challenged the adoption, state courts ordered her to be turned over to her father and his family to live in Oklahoma.

She has lived in Oklahoma for the past 18 months.

The emotional child-custody dispute has drawn extensive media coverage highlighting the bitter tug-of-war between, on one side, the loving professional couple from Charleston who adopted the child in an arrangement with the unwed mother, and, on the other, the biological father who refused to provide financial support to the birth-mother and avoided contact with the mother and child.

Under state law, a father who refuses to provide such support generally loses any claim to parental rights.

But the father in this case, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (12-399), is a member of the Cherokee Nation and is thus covered by a federal law that generally bars the adoption of a Native-American child by non-Indians.

The issue in the case was whether the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) barred Veronica’s adoption, despite the father’s lack of involvement in caring for the expectant mother and their child.

On Tuesday, the high court ruled that it did not bar such an adoption. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the ICWA would not protect the rights of a father who had never had custody of his child. He added that the ban on non-Indian adoptions under the ICWA did not apply when the “parent abandoned the Indian child before birth and never had custody of the child.”

Justice Alito added that the ICWA also does not “bar a non-Indian family like Adoptive Couple from adopting an Indian child when no other eligible candidates have sought to adopt the child.”

But the case may be far from over. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said it is possible that Veronica’s paternal grandparents might assert authority under the ICWA to adopt her.

If they did so, Justice Sotomayor said, they may then be entitled to preferential consideration as required by the ICWA.

In her dissent, Sotomayor said the majority justices had turned the ICWA upside down, distorting the statute “to rectify a perceived wrong.”

Sotomayor observed that the court’s decision may have set the stage for even more emotional turmoil.

“Baby Girl has now resided with her father for 18 months. 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 3-1/2, she is again removed from her home and sent to live halfway across the country,” Sotomayor wrote.

“Such a fate is not foreordained, of course,” she said. “But it can be said with certainty that the anguish this case has caused will only be compounded by today’s decision.”

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