In a 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court ruled that a child of Native American ancestry could legally reside with her non-Native American adoptive parents over the objections of her biological father. The court decided that the child's biological father, Dusten Brown, had relinquished his custodial rights at the time of her birth and that as a result, the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act does not apply in this case. This decision overturns an earlier ruling from the South Carolina Supreme Court.
According to records of the case, the child, Veronica Capobianco, was adopted at birth by Matt and Melanie Capobianco of Charleston, S.C., in 2009. However, four months after Veronica's birth, Brown decided he wanted his child back.
Eventually the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in Brown's favor, arguing the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act required Brown to raise the child since he was approximately 1% Cherokee. The ICWA says that where possible, state adoption authorities must place Native American children with families that are of similar ancestry.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito argued that an overbroad reading of the notion of custody would place Native American children at a "unique disadvantage in finding a permanent and loving family home."
"A biological Indian father ... could play his ICWA trump card at the eleventh hour to override the mother's decision and the child's best interests," Alito said. "If this were possible, many prospective adoptive parents would surely pause before adopting any child who might possibly qualify as an Indian under the ICWA."
Concluding his opinion, Alito suggested that when (as in this case, with Veronica Capobianco being 3/256ths Cherokee) a child's Native American ancestry is marginal, broader equal protection concerns might also be raised. His concerns speak to the majority's broader fear that children with limited Native American bloodlines could be prejudiced against adoption due to a couple's concern that their child might one day be taken from them.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor sided with the minority, saying the child would be impacted far more by being removed once again from her biological family and sent back to the Capobiancos.
"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 3½, she is again removed from her home and sent to live halfway across the country," Sotomayor wrote.
Reacting to the ruling, the Capobiancos said in a statement that they were "hopeful that today's decision will prevent the tragic disruption of other adoptions and prevent this heartbreak from happening to other families."
Lori McGill, the attorney for Veronica's birth mother, Christinna Maldanado, says her client was similarly pleased with the ruling, adding that "'grateful' just about sums it up". McGill also stated that the case was the most difficult and emotionally charged that she'd ever worked on.
With the court's ruling that the IWCA does not apply in this case, the adoption proceedings will now return to the South Carolina courts for another look. It is still unclear whether Brown will be forced to turn over Veronica to the Capobiancos.