SCOTUS Event Analyzes Adoptive Parents v. Baby Girl Case

Photo by Hope Patti

On March 10, the LAWS Convening Group, the Civic and Community Engagement Center and law professor Dennis Ng hosted a SCOTUS discussion on the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl case, which took place in 2013.

The case entailed the conflict over the custody of a child named Veronica. Her biological father is Dustin Brown, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation. According to the discussion, it was due to his time in the military and his refusal to pay child support to the mother, Christina Maldonado, that he relinquished his parental rights. This left the mother to put the child up for adoption, as she did not possess the means to support the child whilst taking care of her three other kids. The adoptive couple, the Capobiancos, began adoption proceedings in South Carolina when the Cherokee Nation identified the father as a registered member and intervened. Under the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA, Native American children should be preferentially adopted by other members of the tribe in order to preserve these tribes' continued survival and sustainability. In addition, Brown raised issue with the notion that he relinquished his rights, stating that he thought he was just relinquishing his rights to the mother and that it was only done via text message. The ICWA states that to relinquish parental rights, a Native American parent must do so in writing and do so before a judge who must certify that the parent understood his or her actions.

After Brown regained custody of Veronica via the decision of the state Supreme Court, the Capobiancos filed appeals that eventually led to the case being picked up by the Supreme Court of the United States. After the deliberations, a 5-4 decision was made determining that the ICWA cannot be used by a noncustodial parent to block the adoption.

“In the majority opinion, Justice Alito made the case that since Dustin Brown did not possess legal or physical custody of Baby Veronica prior to the adoption proceedings and that he had previously relinquished his rights, the ICWA goal to prevent the breakup of Indian families need not apply,” Ng said.

After hearing the case and the arguments, the audience in attendance seemed rather unsure as to what side they supported. Law and society professor Mia Serban recognized the need of the ICWA and its continued prevalence.

“Much like in Canada and Australia, native groups in the United States faced decline, as massive amounts of tribal children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in foster and adoptive houses,” Serban said.

Professor Ng concurred with this statement.

“I agree with the dissenting opinion; the majority here have unfortunately created a precedent here which may serve to undermine the ICWA,” Ng said.