The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a lower court order requiring a South Carolina couple to turn over a young girl they had raised since birth to her biological father simply because he was an American Indian.
By a 5-4 vote, the court ruled in favor of Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who had been caring for the girl they named Veronica until a family court ordered them to turn her over to her biological father Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation.
"We're thrilled," Mark Fiddler, a lawyer for the couple, said in an interview with Reuters. "Adoption professionals have been perplexed for years over how the ICWA [Indian Child Welfare Act] applies to voluntary adoption proceedings where the unwed father is Indian and the mother is not. The decision today clears up that confusion. It means my clients may proceed with efforts to adopt Veronica,” he said.
The Capobiancos released a statement Tuesday expressing their joy.
"We are very happy with the ruling that came down today. The Supreme Court did everything we asked it to do. The decision of SCOTUS clearly establishes that our adoption should have been approved, and Veronica should never have been taken away from her home and family in the first place. We miss her very much and we are looking forward to the opportunity to see our daughter very soon."
Baby Veronica has not lived with her adoptive family since 2011.
According to Charles Rothfeld, the father’s attorney, Brown was not aware that his daughter had been put up for adoption. As soon as he learned that she was no longer in Oklahoma, where he resides, Brown immediately took action to get his daughter back, Rothfeld said.
Brown had argued that the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, intended to curb practices that caused many Native American children to be separated from their families, entitled him to custody of the girl, who was 3/256th Cherokee.
Tuesday, conservative Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Supreme Court majority, concluded that the law did not bar the termination of Brown's parental rights.
"Under the State Supreme Court's reading," Alito wrote, "a biological Indian father could abandon his child in utero and refuse any support for the birth mother ... and then could play his ICWA trump card at the eleventh hour to override the mother's decision and the child's best interests.
"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," he wrote.
Rothfeld said that he and Brown were “disappointed this hasn't come to an end.”
Although he said he wishes the decision was different, Rothfeld said he was originally concerned that the court would invalidate the ICWA -- which it did not.
“In that sense, we think we were not that unhappy with the decision. As written by the majority [the court’s decision] only applies to a small category of cases.”
The Supreme Court did not grant the couple an adoption, but threw out the South Carolina court decisions awarding custody to the father.
The court returned the case to the South Carolina state courts for further proceedings.
Currently, Veronica lives with her biological father and stepmother, and has close relationships with her stepsiblings and cousins. “She is happy and thriving,” Rothfeld said. Veronica will stay with the Browns until the case is settled in lower court.
“We are confident that ultimately the father will retain custody,” Rothfeld said.
The case is Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl et al, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-399.
Reuters contributed to this report.