National Indian Child Welfare Association Responds to Dr. Phil's Coverage of ICWA Case
On October 18, 2012, the Dr. Phil show aired an episode that focused on a disputed custody case involving an American Indian child, Veronica. The case pits a loving father’s attempts to parent his daughter against a non-Indian couple from South Carolina–the Capobiancos–and their attorneys who orchestrated an illegal attempt to adopt Veronica. The National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) is gravely disappointed in the heavy slant toward the Capobiancos’ recounting of the situation and interpretation of the legal issues in the case. Veronica’s father, who has been relentlessly vilified in the media as a “deadbeat dad” is, in fact, a loving parent and a decorated Iraq war veteran. Rather than acknowledge his right to protect his daughter from a media firestorm that has proven deeply biased, the Dr. Phil show instead allowed personal attacks on his character and speculation on his parenting–from those who admittedly have had no contact with him–to continue unchallenged. We find these attacks unsupported by court records and unacceptable. Veronica’s pre-adoptive placement was kept secret by her mother and attorneys representing the Capobiancos. Her placement with them was not revealed to Veronica’s father for four months–just days before he was sent to Iraq. Upon learning of his daughter’s proposed adoption, the father quickly moved to affirm his rights to parent Veronica. After three decisions supporting his rights in the South Carolina courts, he has been parenting her since January 2012.
Dr. Phil and several of his guests ignored the fraudulent process attorneys representing the Capobiancos used to help them gain custody of Veronica during their unsuccessful attempt to adopt her. That Veronica is American Indian was known by the Capobiancos and their attorneys, as was the fact that any adoptive process involving her would be covered by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Instead of delving into why the Capobiancos were advised to circumvent the law, putting Veronica at high risk, Dr. Phil instead chose to rebuff the two guests with the most knowledge of this case and experience in such matters, Assistant District Attorney of the Cherokee Nation Chrissi Nimmo and Les Marston, attorney and tribal judge. NICWA understands this case is emotionally-charged and has attracted worldwide attention. Nonetheless, we must reject the subjective definitions of what is in Veronica’s best interest that Dr. Phil disappointingly reinforced. Not only did the discussion of Veronica’s “best interest” completely discount the importance of her cultural identity and rights as a tribal citizen, it more shockingly ignored the significance of her being raised within a loving home with her father, sister, stepmother, and loving grandparents–and among a community that includes extended family and tribal members who love her. As Nimmo correctly stated, if Veronica was a non-Indian child, existing state and federal laws would have afforded the father an opportunity to seek custody of her and not reward those who violated the law. Furthermore, NICWA firmly believes that Veronica’s best interest is not served by the continued negative media campaign currently pursued by the Capobiancos and their public relations firm. We have no doubt they love Veronica, but in this case, the ends they hope to accomplish certainly do not justify the means. Dr. Phil’s portrayal only serves to put Veronica at further risk. The show’s characterization of ICWA was also filled with misinformation and inaccuracies. ICWA is a law that has helped protect thousands of American Indian children and keep them with their families. Veronica’s story illustrates the clear ongoing need for federal protections like ICWA for American Indian children who continue to be the victims of questionable, and sometimes illegal, attempts to adopt them out. To learn more about how you can support the National Indian Child Welfare Association’s efforts to strengthen protections for American Indian children and families and to access more information on this case, please visit their website. Terry Cross is the executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association. NICWA is a Portland-based national nonprofit organization and the most comprehensive source of information on American Indian child welfare working on behalf of Indian children and families. NICWA provides public policy, research, advocacy, information, training, and community development services to a broad national audience, including state child welfare agencies and other organizations, agencies, and professionals interested in the field of Indian child welfare.