Cherokee Tribe Member Loses Custody of Daughter to a South Carolina Couple

Baby Veronica
Photo by Grace Beahm/

The battle over “Baby Veronica” is settled once and for all where the Oklahoma Supreme Court allowed a South Carolina couple to adopt a young Cherokee girl.  The couple tried tirelessly to adopt four year old Veronica since her birth, and now she is safely in her adoptive parents arms.

Before Veronica was born, Veronica’s biological father, Dusten Brown, surrendered his parental rights.  Adoption permission was given by her unmarried biological mother to Matt and Melanie Capobianco.

After the first 27 months of Veronica’s life, the Capobiancos and Veronica’s biological father, Brown, have fought relentlessly over the custody of the girl.  This custody battle raised pertinent issues such as jurisdiction, tribal sovereignty and a federal law which has the sole intent of keeping Native American tribes together.

Brown and his family claim the Indian Child Welfare Act mandates that the child be raised within the Cherokee Nation.  The law was passed in 1978 with the intent of reducing the high rates of Native American children being adopted by non-Native American families.

Veronica, whose biological mother is not Native American and whose biological father is a member of the Cherokee Nation, lived with the Capobiancos until she was 27 months old, when custody was awarded to Brown under the Indian Child Welfare Act.  South Carolina courts said the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act favored the biological father of the girl, named Veronica. But the South Carolina couple who raised her for the first 27 months of her life appealed that decision.

After months of litigation, Veronica’s case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who eventually decided against Brown. The US Supreme Court held, in a 5-4 decision, federal law does not mandate that in contested adoptions biological parents of Native American children should always prevail over adoptive parents.  The justices’ holding was brought forth in the context of the Indian Child Welfare Act (IWCA) where non-Native American parents are given preference over adoptive and foster parents.

The intent of the legislation is to keep Native American children from being displaced from their biological parents.  Justice Alito’s majority opinion espoused that the federal law does not apply to the present case because Veronica’s biological father abandoned her before birth and never had physical nor actual custody of her.  The ICWA does not apply when there are no parents that come forward. It is in the best interest of the child to allow non-Native American parents to adopt the child when the child is abandoned.

The South Carolina court finalized the Capobiancos’ adoption of the girl earlier this year but Brown, in a last-ditch effort, turned to the Oklahoma’s courts. Brown requested an emergency stay of the South Carolina’s order for adoption. The Oklahoma Supreme Court chose not to weigh in on the merits of the case by declining to take jurisdiction over the adoption dispute.

Veronica’s custody was transferred to the Capobiancos. Brown and his wife packed clothes and toys for Veronica before she made the trip to her new family, the Capobiancos. Brown hopes the Capobiancos honor their word in that he will be allowed to remain an important part of Veronica’s life.

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