It will take the wisdom of Solomon to decide what’s right in the case of Baby Veronica — and establish just how far to apply the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
The Supreme Court decided Friday to take on the case after considering a petition from adoptive parents Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who would like to regain custody of 3-year-old Veronica, returned to her biological father, a member of the Cherokee Nation, more than a year ago on New Year’s Eve 2011.
The nation’s high court will look at whether a non-custodial parent can invoke the Indian Child Welfare Act to block an adoption carried out legally by a non-Indian parent under state law. Also at issue is the definition of “parent” to use in applying the Indian Child Welfare Act: Should it include an unwed biological father who has not followed state law to claim his parental rights, or does so belatedly?
The story of Baby Veronica, as she’s been dubbed by the media, is guaranteed to break your heart. The Capobiancos, of Charleston, S.C., arranged with Veronica’s birth mother to adopt the multiracial child. They were present for her birth in September 2009 in Oklahoma; Matt even cut the umbilical cord.
The birth mother assured the Capobiancos that the birth father had relinquished his paternal rights. But when Dusten Brown, who was serving in the Army and stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., was served with papers stating he would not dispute the adoption, he disagreed and fought to get custody.
The details are spelled out in the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court, but it’s a “he said — she said” story. He claims he wanted to marry the birth mom; she says he didn’t want to provide support.
Caught in the middle of the drama are the Capobiancos, who made a home for the little girl they loved as their daughter and then were ordered to give her up by the South Carolina Supreme Court, which stated in its decision: “Adoptive Couple are ideal parents who have exhibited the ability to provide a loving family environment for Baby Girl. Thus, it is with a heavy heart that we affirm the family court order.”
It’s because of Veronica’s Native American heritage that the state court had to abide by the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law, and give preference to the biological father.
The Capobiancos have taken their story to the media, with an October appearance on the Dr. Phil show and coverage by Anderson Cooper on CNN. A Web site and Facebook page also tell their side. Meanwhile, editorials espousing the Native American side abound, with Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, writing, “The Indian Child Welfare Act is based upon the unique political status of American Indians, not upon race.”
The Indian Child Welfare Act was created in 1978 to try to protect the rights of Native American children and preserve families within tribes. Many of these children were adopted — some forcibly –by white families as part of the Indian Adoption Project, a social experiment from 1958 to 1967 run by the Child Welfare League of America and funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
It was in 1959 that my cousin, Sherrie Dutro, was adopted at the age of 16 months from Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota by my mom’s aunt and uncle. She was raised in the tiny Missouri town of Pattonsburg, where there were actually two other Native American children adopted around the same time.
I never thought much about Sherrie being a Native American. Until I was writing this article, we had never talked about it. “I thought of myself as white until I looked in a mirror,” she told me.
When she went to college at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., she experienced culture shock. “It was totally foreign” to her at first, she said.
But Sherrie has no regrets about being adopted by a white family. As Shannon, one of her daughters, put it, “She was raised in a good area by good people.” Both pointed out that Rosebud is one of the poorest reservations in the United States and life would have been much different had Sherrie been raised there.
Shannon Dutro does regret not learning about her culture and heritage until she, too, attended Haskell where she developed such a passion for the subject that she earned a degree in American Indian studies. Now a single mom, she’s teaching her almost-5-year-old son about his culture; he dances at powwows, helps her make dream catchers and wants to learn bead work. She’s participated in a peaceful demonstration of Idle No More.
She admits to feeling isolated in Bethany, Mo. where she lives and hopes someday to find a job that would use her degree. In the meantime, she appreciates the support from her family in raising her child and shares her knowledge of Native American culture with her sister and brothers.
If Veronica’s biological father is providing a good home, Shannon believes that’s where the toddler belongs. “He sounds like a good guy who’s trying to do the right thing,” she says. “But I feel for them [the Capobiancos], too.”
Watching the tearful pleas of the Capobiancos reminds me of another case — that of Baby Jessica from the early 1990s — who was returned to her birth parents after they changed their mind before the adoption was finalized. A book and a TV movie resulted, both favorable to the adoptive parents, who ranked higher on the socioeconomic scale than the birth parents. In a 2003 column, Jessica — now known as Anna — was portrayed as “a self-possessed 12-year-old who adores her parents and her 9-year-old sister” despite the drama of her first year.
I hope — regardless of what the Supreme Court may decide later this spring — that Veronica will turn out as well.
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Overland Park, Kan.