Dusten Brown holds Veronica in his attorney's office in Charleston after taking custody of her Dec. 31, 2011. (Provided by Dusten Brown via The Post and Courier)

South Carolina Supreme Court Rules to Keep Baby Veronica With Biological Father

Alysa Landry

Baby Veronica, a 2-year-old Cherokee girl adopted by non-Native parents in 2009, will remain with her biological father following a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling filed July 26 that upholds the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.

The decision means Veronica has a permanent home on the Cherokee Nation, where her family has “a deeply embedded relationship” with its heritage, the Supreme Court ruling states. It also means a victory for the Indian Child Welfare Act and for the Cherokee Nation.

“We’re very pleased with the results,” Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said in a statement posted on the tribe’s website. “This is a victory not only for the Cherokee baby and her father, but for all of Indian Country. The Cherokee Nation has done a great job to ensure the Indian Child Welfare Act is enforced to preserve Indian families.”

The act, which protects American Indian families from being separated, trumped South Carolina law in a Dec. 28, 2011, appellate court ruling. Biological father Dusten Brown on New Year’s Eve took his daughter home to Bartlesville, Okla., a city bordering the Tahlequah-based Cherokee Nation.

Adoptive parents Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who live in South Carolina, appealed to the state high court, arguing that state law strips a biological father’s paternity rights if he does not provide pre-birth support or take steps to be a father shortly after birth. The Capobianco couple adopted Veronica from her birth mother, Christina Maldonado.

Brown, a registered member of the Cherokee Nation and a U.S. Army soldier not married to Maldonado, agreed to surrender his parental rights and admitted that his behavior was not conducive to being a father, the July 26 ruling states. Four months after Veronica’s birth, however, Brown took legal action, seeking custody of his daughter and claiming he did not consent to his daughter’s adoption.

After the appellate court ruled in Brown’s favor in December, the Capobianco couple started a petition on change.org to “consider the best interests of the child.” The Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare also joined the battle to keep Veronica with her adoptive parents. The Capobiancos took the matter to the South Carolina Supreme Court in a case that pitted the couple against the toddler, her birth father and the Cherokee Nation.

Seven months after the first decision, however, the high court upheld the December ruling and decided in favor of the Indian Child Welfare Act, though at the same time stated that the adoptive family did nothing wrong.

“We affirm the decision of the family court denying the adoption and awarding custody to the biological father,” the ruling states. Three of the high court’s five justices affirmed the ruling while two dissented.

“We do not take lightly the grave interests at stake in this case,” the ruling states. “However, we are constrained by the law and convinced by the facts that the transfer of custody to father was required under the law. Adoptive couple are ideal parents who have exhibited the ability to provide a loving family environment for baby girl. Thus, it is with a heavy heart that we affirm the family court order.”

Because the case involved the Indian Child Welfare Act, custodial preference had to be given to the biological father, the ruling states.

“We simply see this case as one in which the dictates of federal Indian law supersede state law where the adoption and custody of an Indian child is at issue,” the ruling states.

The decision means much more than upholding a federal law, however, said Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association. The ruling ensures Baby Veronica grows up surrounded by her culture and people and the rights and responsibilities that come with it.

“I can’t say enough about the importance of a child’s rights throughout their lives,” Cross said. “These are things as simple as voting in tribal elections, running for office, taking advantage of tribal scholarships and benefits, participating in customary and ceremony rights, plus their relationships with extended families. It’s about a notion of a sense of belonging. Indian children are as tied to their extended families as they are to their parents. There’s a rich network of culture there, and that’s what we rely on for wellbeing.”

Cross expressed sympathy for the adoptive parents, but said the South Carolina court acted in accordance with the federal law.

“The decision was entirely consistent with the act,” he said. “There’s no question about the validity of the act. The words I would say are that any suffering of the child or of the adoptive family was about the violation of the law and not the law itself.”

“Our hearts go out to the family,” Cross added. “No family should have to go through something like that.”

The Indian Child Welfare Act, designed to stop the large numbers of involuntary adoption of American Indian children by non-Native families during the 1970s, outlines three acceptable alternatives. The most preferred solution is to place an adoptive American Indian child with members of his or her extended family. The child also can be placed with members of the same tribe or with other American Indian families.

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laura's picture
Submitted by laura on
After what that poor little girl has gone through, being taken away from the only parents she ever knew at such a vulnerable age, I just hope the birth father does right by her and gives her the upbringing she deserves. The whole Tsalagi family/community has big shoes to fill to make up for what happened. I sure hope they step up & make it worth all the pain all parties involved have endured (and I'm sure continue to endure, in the case of the adoptive parents.)

laura's picture
Submitted by laura on
The sickest part of this story is the fact that, according to reporting, the toddler met her birth father for the first time at a lawyer's office, spent 2 hrs with him in the company of his mother and her adoptive parents, then was wrenched away from the people she called parents and taken 10 hours away. WHO does that to a child??? If this is really how it happened, I don't think much of either set of parents. Either the adoptees should've prepared Veronica for this possibility, or the biological father should've taken steps to make this less traumatic for his daughter.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Every time this child says "I want to see daddy", where is mommy?, you will know what you have done.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
A man who truly loved this baby would not wrench her away from the Mommy and Daddy she loves. This Dusten Brown seems like a selfish, self-centered jerk. Poor little girl.

Ramona runnels's picture
Ramona runnels
Submitted by Ramona runnels on
glad it work for someone! email address fine22us@yahoo.com i posted please tell me what to do its got to stop they are stealing our children as of yet today i no i no someone that told me that dhs would get them what they wanted and that was my granddaughter!!

Richard's picture
Submitted by Richard on
I worked thru the intro of the ICWA as a social worker in Minnesota. I have followed a number of these cases and 35 years later the children that were returned to native parents have lived normal lives, with normal ups and downs. After 5 years in foster care I 'won' a contested adoption of a little Indian child and her white and loving foster parents in state courts. It was perfect. The child became trouble in adolescence and committed suicide at 17. This is a well documented and not uncommon story for displaced native children adopted into white families. The same holds for many catagories of transracial adoption. Don't rush to impose some short sighted view of what constitutes 'the best interest' of the child. We forget violently kidnapping whole generations of Indian children of all ages from their families and their homes to be put into white 'reservation schools' never to see their familes again. They were told, "You will get over it." This child's gain will far surpass the loss.