The Supreme Court and Baby Veronica

- Gary E. Williams

In a decision that broadly touches matters of family and Native American Indian law, the Supreme Court recently reversed and sent an adoption case back to South Carolina courts for hearing.

The case of Baby Veronica is well known by many. The biological father in the case, Dusten Brown, refused to provide support for either Baby Veronica or her mother. In a text and in duly signed paperwork, Mr. Brown terminated his parental rights. A South Carolina couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco sought to adopt Baby Veronica and attended her birth.

When the Capobianco family proceeded with a legal action to formally adopt Baby Veronica into their family, Mr. Brown experienced a change of heart, working to gain custody in South Carolina courts by invoking the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) that prohibits dissolution of intact Native American Indian families.

Interpreting the Indian Child Welfare Act, South Carolina courts removed Baby Veronica from the only home she had known for 27 months and placed her with her father in Oklahoma. Mr. and Mrs. Capobianco appealed the matter, eventually to the Supreme Court.

In deciding the case, the Supreme Court majority held the following:

  • The ICWA does not apply where a parent never had custody of the child.
  • Given the child was abandoned prior to birth, there is no discontinued parental or familial relationship.
  • The parent did not seek to adopt Baby Veronica, only that his parental rights should not be terminated. Other Indian families, including the paternal grandparents did not seek to adopt Baby Veronica

There is no question that the battle for Baby Veronica will continue. Time and the law will tell in whose best interests the case will be decided.