Opinion

The complications and implications of the Baby Veronica case | Editor’s Notebook

The Baby Veronica case has implications that could be felt throughout the United States, and especially in Kitsap County, home of two Native American reservations and a sizable military population.

At stake: The sovereignty of indigenous nations, the strength of the Indian Child Welfare Act, and the rights of birth parents.

As you may know, the case of Baby Veronica involves the contested adoption of a 3-year-old girl whose father, Dusten Brown, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a National Guard soldier.

In a nutshell:

Brown, of Oklahoma, had been engaged to Veronica’s birth mother, Christy Maldonado, who called off their engagement before the baby was born and arranged its adoption. The baby was born in Oklahoma and placed with prospective adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, of James Island, S.C. The Cherokee Nation was not notified of the proposed adoption in accordance with Oklahoma state law, and Brown did not know of the proposed adoption until after the baby was born. The Cherokee Nation, like all Tribes, is a self-governing nation-within-a-nation, with its own laws. Its members are citizens of the nation, as well as citizens of the United States. Laws of both nations apply.

Brown challenged the adoption and a South Carolina District Court awarded him custody — later upheld by an appellate court — citing the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law passed in 1978 in response to an alarmingly high number of Native children being removed from their homes by public and private agencies. The intent of Congress under ICWA is to "protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.”

The Capobiancos took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that South Carolina’s Supreme Court should decide who gets to adopt Veronica. The South Carolina court awarded the Capobiancos custody and ordered Brown to return her to South Carolina. When Brown failed to do so on the appointed date — he was attending a military training school at Camp Dodge, Iowa — it issued a warrant for his arrest. He turned himself in Monday in Oklahoma and posted $10,000 bond Monday.

Here’s what’s wrong with this case:

First, the U.S. Supreme Court was wrong to remand the case to a court in the Capobiancos’ home state, for the same reason we wouldn’t expect the high court to remand it to the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation or Oklahoma, Veronica’s home state.

Second, a state court cannot trump federal law, but that’s what the South Carolina high court did when it ruled for the Capobiancos over the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Third, it is undisputed that the Capobiancos had Brown served at his Army base with notification of their intent to adopt. He did not have a lawyer present and was preparing for deployment. He thought he signed papers giving custodial rights to the baby’s mother; when he recognized it asked him to relinquish his parental rights to the Capobiancos, he asked for the paperwork back but was denied by the server.

The Capobiancos say Brown had earlier relinquished his parental rights via cell phone text message with Veronica’s mother. But those messages were sent while he was away on military duty and she had called off their engagement. She had not notified him of her intent to put their yet-unborn baby up for adoption. By his efforts to keep his daughter, there’s an argument to be made that Brown confused the terms “custodial rights,” which would mean he would still be a part of his daughter’s life; and “parental rights,” which means he would not. It’s clear which he prefers.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric in this case escalates, with Matt and Melanie Capobianco terming Brown’s custody of Veronica “kidnapping,” Matt Capobianco saying he’ll go to Oklahoma to enforce the court order if law enforcement won’t intervene, and the Capobiancos’ supporters questioning the extent of Veronica’s Cherokee ancestry. (Indigenous nations set the requirements for citizenship, just as all nations do, and under Cherokee law Veronica is Cherokee.)

Before this case gets any more out of hand, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — who is reportedly   working with law enforcement, the solicitor's office, and the state of Oklahoma on this case — must stay any further action. There is legal action pending in South Carolina, Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation courts. Native American groups are pursuing a federal civil rights case, saying a hearing should be held to determine if it is in Veronica’s best interest to be transferred to South Carolina. Those cases should be resolved first.

This case has to be resolved with care and calm, for the sake of a 3-year-old girl named Veronica.

— Richard Walker is editor of the North Kitsap Herald. Contact him at rwalker@northkitsapherald.com

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