Veronica; her father, Dusten and his wife, Robin (Courtesy Cherokee Nation)

The Fight for Baby Veronica, Part 3

Suzette Brewer
6/4/13

Editor’s Note: The Baby Veronica Case, recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, is one of the most important Indian legal battles of the last generation. It is the story of Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation, who has invoked the Indian Child Welfare Act to prevent Christina Maldonado, the non-Indian mother of his baby daughter, Veronica, from putting their child up for adoption by Matt and Melanie Capobianco of South Carolina.

That bare outline does not begin to describe the convoluted dimensions of the case formally known as Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. Its drama includes an unplanned pregnancy, a broken engagement, charges of bad faith, an adoption agency that did not comply with federal Indian law, a couple who fought to adopt a child who was never legally eligible, and even the intervention of the Cherokee Nation.

Last week, as part of a series devoted to the case, we described how Maldonado tried to arrange Veronica’s adoption by the Capobiancos, who paid her $10,000 and other expenses for her efforts. In this third and concluding installment, based largely on interviews with Brown and his team, a South Carolina court rules in favor of Brown as a media circus that would become as much a part of the case as the principals themselves begins to ominously emerge.

In 2010, after Brown had been served notice of termination and adoption, his original lawyer, Lesley Sasser, asked a Charleston, South Carolina–based family court attorney named Shannon Jones to join Brown’s legal team. Although Jones is an expert in interstate custody disputes under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act, she did not expect to become involved in an adoption struggle over an Indian child from Oklahoma.

“Lesley came to my office one day and said, ‘I’ve got this case that’s coming up for trial, and it could be kind of complex,’ ” said Jones, laughing at the understatement. “She said it involved the Indian Child Welfare Act. Honestly, at first I didn’t even know what it was. I’d never heard of it.”

Jones’s learning curve was steep and rapid. Early on, she realized that the Indian Child Welfare Act would be a brick wall for the Capobiancos in the contested adoption of Baby Veronica, whom the courts considered an Indian child. By this time, too, it was clear that the Capobiancos, the preadoptive parents, were prepared to pursue termination of Brown’s parental rights to maintain custody of the little girl.

But Brown, equally dead set on getting his daughter back, refused to back down. From the beginning, he had been marginalized and pushed out of his child’s life, and he was not interested in pursuing a settlement, he said.

“He never, ever wavered in his commitment to this case,” said Jones. “Anything short of full custody was not an option. I asked him at one point if he wanted to settle [with the Capobiancos] and maybe go for visitation, and he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘No.’ And that was that. End of discussion.”

In June 2010, the state of Oklahoma declined jurisdiction, declaring South Carolina as Veronica’s home state. By the time Brown returned from Iraq that December, his daughter was already 15 months old and the case was beginning to gain momentum in the courts.

In initial proceedings in Charleston, Family Court Judge for the Ninth Judicial Circuit Paul Garfinkel ruled in Brown’s favor in July 2011. He found that although the terms of the Indian Child Welfare Act had not been followed in the case, they did indeed apply.

But the Capobiancos, who had been working with Maldonado virtually since she learned she was pregnant, had spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to adopt Veronica, and they were too invested in the situation to let go. So they took their fight to the next legal level.

Judge Deborah Malphrus, who heard arguments in South Carolina’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, issued a verbal courtroom ruling in favor of Brown on November 25, 2011. Soon, according to multiple sources in South Carolina, she was “inappropriately contacted” by numerous parties who asked her outright to change her written ruling in favor of the Capobiancos. Far from listening to their requests, Malphrus subsequently issued a 25-page ruling that reiterated the family court findings and transferred custody to Brown.

After a last-ditch attempt by the Capobiancos to stay the transfer was denied, Brown and his parents went to South Carolina in late December 2011 to bring Veronica back to Oklahoma. But rather than relinquish custody of Veronica privately at a local park, as had been the original plan, the Capobiancos took their case public via their newly hired public relations firm, Trio Solutions. What should have been a peaceful, happy transition for the child turned dangerous and bitter in the ensuing chaos surrounding the handoff.

Shannon Jones knew trouble was coming. On New Year’s Eve morning 2011, she woke early to prepare for Veronica’s transfer to Brown. She and her client had already given the Capobiancos an extra day to spend with the girl, and she was looking forward to concluding the case and spending New Year’s Eve with her young family. But the plan collapsed as she drove to the park at which all parties had agreed to meet for the handoff.

“I get this call from Jo Prowell, the guardian ad litem, who had no business being at that transfer,” said Jones, “and she says, ‘I think we need to have the exchange downtown at the Omni hotel,’ and I knew right then something wasn’t right, but I trusted that [the Capobiancos and their team] would keep it low key.”
Minutes later, Jones received a call from her associate, Wyatt Wimberly, who had already arrived at the hotel.

“It’s a madhouse down here,” Wimberly told her. “They’ve brought camera crews with them, and there are reporters everywhere.”

Jones called for a police escort and told Brown and his parents to stay put at her office. When Jones arrived at the hotel, the Capobiancos’ attorney, Raymond Godwin, was already being interviewed on camera by local news outlets, which were waiting to capitalize on the handoff. It was immediately clear that there was a coordinated effort to make Veronica’s transfer a media event.

Wimberly asked the hotel’s security team to move the media crews and reporters outside as tourists, spectators and protestors with signs started to gather. As the crowd began to realize what was happening, things turned ugly. People began harassing and heckling Jones with insults and name-calling.

“You could feel the animosity in the air,” Jones recalled. “Ray Godwin walked up to me in front of everyone and said, ‘I’m not giving you the child. The court order says I’m to give the child to the father.’ I told him no way, not in front of the cameras. We had discussed at great length how this should happen and this was absolutely not a safe environment for the transfer of a young child—anything could have happened. It was a circus, and I was shocked that they would insist that we handle this in public just so they could get a photo op.”

Jones then told Godwin that the transfer would take place at her office with no media present. Meanwhile, Brown was anxiously waiting at Jones’s office to see his daughter face-to-face for the first time since she was born. Up until that day, he was only allowed to see photos of her.

“It was a madhouse,” said Brown. “We had discussed a ‘neutral’ location, but somehow I knew the adoptive parents weren’t going to play ball. My parents and I were upstairs in Shannon’s second-story office, and we looked out the window [and] here they come down the sidewalk with my daughter and a mob of people, there were camera crews, people taking pictures with their cell phones, some were even carrying signs and there was shouting and yelling. I was pretty upset, because Veronica was forced to be in the middle of all that.”

But Brown, an Iraq War veteran, had been trained to maintain his composure in difficult situations. So he made a decision on the spot.

“We waited them out,” he said. “After Veronica was brought upstairs, we spoke to the adoptive couple and said our good-byes. But I was not going to give them a chance to exploit her for the cameras. No photographers, no reporters, no media, no nothing.”

Despite the riotous, staged nature of the handoff, relations between Brown and the Capobiancos were amiable, at least initially. Brown, sensitive to the adoptive couple’s obvious grief, said he gave them his phone number and told them they could call Veronica to stay in contact with her. He asked only that they wait a few weeks for things to settle down at her new home in Oklahoma. After an emotional farewell, the Capobiancos left as Brown and his daughter sat in Jones’s office for several hours, coloring, looking outside at the birds, and waiting for the public and the media to leave. From the beginning, Veronica immediately bonded with her father.

“It was instantaneous,” said Jones. “That little girl climbed right in her father’s lap and never cried a tear. There was never an uncomfortable moment between the two of them.”

As the last stragglers on the street drifted away, Wimberly drove the Browns’ vehicle around to the back of the office building so that their departure could be made quietly and without incident. But as they exited the door, a lone television camera crew spotted them and came running toward the Browns’ vehicle.

“Shannon Jones is tiny,” says Brown, smiling, “but she got right between the cameras and us and told them to go away. She’s tough.”

With the chaos of the transfer finally behind him, Brown and his parents put the car in drive and didn’t look back.

“We drove 22 hours straight without stopping from South Carolina,” says Brown. “We just wanted to get back home to Oklahoma.”

As soon as the Browns pulled into the driveway, however, things began to sour between the two families. With their public relations machine already in full swing, the Capobiancos made an appearance on CNN. It was the first of many media appearances and social networking schemes to gather support for the coming legal storm that would engulf everything in its path.

Related:

The Fight for Baby Veronica, Part 1

The Fight for Baby Veronica, Part 2

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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Sometimes there is a reason the Creator will not allow people to have children. This washichu couple in South Carolina does not need to have ANY children, naturally or through adoption. They are an example of the evil in the white race. Since they had lost their case, they wanted to throw a fit in a round about way & try & make this First Nations man look bad & selfish. Instead, to all our people, it has backfired & we see them for what they are: People with money who think they can buy anything or anyone they desire. Selfish & wicked ones with a evil spirit & dark heart. Sorry washichus, our children are not for sell at ANY price! The Creator blessed us with them because He knew they would be taught what is good & what is right in this world. There are STILL those who walk Mother Earth who are men & women of integrity & cannot be bought, sold, bribed or blackmailed for any amount of financial gain or information. Such ones are blessed & protected by the Great Spirit against all that is of the Evil One & his Army of Darkness. Take care my friends who are living in a good way with a pure heart & clean spirit................we who see the larger picture of what is truly going on in this Universe............Our battles & wars are not about things on Turtle Island, but about the Army of Light against the Evil one & the Army of Darkness. Take care my friends.............

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Shared custody - my take anywho - not right irregardless what direction you go - but share the custody - and I am native

Eye Roll's picture
Eye Roll
Submitted by Eye Roll on
Yeah, such a dedicated father and war veteran who maintains his composure, yet didn't support the mother during the pregnancy or want the child for 4 months. There are too many fathers like this in Indian Country! If women and children are sacred, they're sacred all the time- not just when its convenient.

Tina Thomas's picture
Tina Thomas
Submitted by Tina Thomas on
This case should never have gotten as far as it did. The father was duped and the mother tried to make money off of the child. The adoptive couple was wrong. When they realized that he was not going to give up his rights, they should have done the right thing and handed the girl over. I have no sympathy for them. They tried to buy a baby rather than do things the right way in my book. Maldonado should be forced to repay every time and charged with kidnapping for not turning over the child when she was born to her father or to the guardian he would designate while on active duty. These people tried to mess this man over who was fighting for our country thinking that they would get away with it. NO adoptions should ever be allowed while a soldier is deployed unless he signs over his parental rights at the Office of the Staff Judge Advocate and if it's not on the law books then it needs to be put there! This is not just about Indian Child Welfare despite the fact that this was the right act to invoke. This is also about how our soldiers are treated while deployed. They cannot come back to represent themselves more often than not, and this simply is not right.

Joanne M Turner's picture
Joanne M Turner
Submitted by Joanne M Turner on
I have been watching this case from the beginning--quite nerve racking --but always checking for updates--Lived and taught on the reservation my whole life--Husband is Native American--were foster parents for NA American children--Veronica must remain with her biological family--The Creator is there for family and friends--It is the Way--Veronica will have a good life with much happiness!!

Joanne M Turner's picture
Joanne M Turner
Submitted by Joanne M Turner on
I have been watching this case from the beginning--quite nerve racking --but always checking for updates--Lived and taught on the reservation my whole life--Husband is Native American--were foster parents for NA American children--Veronica must remain with her biological family--The Creator is there for family and friends--It is the Way--Veronica will have a good life with much happiness!!

Joanne M Turner's picture
Joanne M Turner
Submitted by Joanne M Turner on
I have been watching this case from the beginning--quite nerve racking --but always checking for updates--Lived and taught on the reservation my whole life--Husband is Native American--were foster parents for NA American children--Veronica must remain with her biological family--The Creator is there for family and friends--It is the Way--Veronica will have a good life with much happiness!!

dorthy morrison's picture
dorthy morrison
Submitted by dorthy morrison on
I have four adopt children who come under the American Indian Adopt law.I would have adopted more if I could. I am the only mother they have and will have. They know about their culture and proud of their Nation.as well as have Natimve American parents.

AP's picture
AP
Submitted by AP on
What was instantaneous was the damage Dusten, and his lawyer, did to his biological daughter when at age 27 months he removed her, sight unseen, from the only parents Veronica knew and trusted. He had a chance to make this situation right by , like the birth mother, having a relationship with his bio daughter thru visitation. His arrest record, his plea deal to join the army, his multiple baby mothers and relationships with them , and more, do not bode well for a stable home in Veronica's future. The only Native American Culture that will be preserved by this act is negative. Being Native American has more to do with a way of living, not a drop of blood or a I.D. card.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
This story is not about a father being deployed or how he was treated when he returned but about a father invoking the ICWA to regain custody of his daughter, regardless of his past history of being an absentee father to his other children. There are too many Native children in Indian Country today that grow up fatherless. I am a grandparent that is helping to raise my grandsons because of an absentee father. Pathetic but a huge reality in Indian Country! Also, there are too many assumptions being made. The sad part is that ICWA is also a setback and is no longer protecting our innocent children on most reservations today. Regardless, Baby Veronica was taken from a loving home and too bad the biological father isn't in favor of a shared living arrangement. Like Hillary Clinton wrote, "It takes a village to raise a child!" Baby Veronica will know that she was a loved child regardless, so stop blaming the adoptive parents or the biological father. Pray that the Supreme Court rules in favor of Baby Veronica and not necessarily in favor of ICWA!

Joan Nassar's picture
Joan Nassar
Submitted by Joan Nassar on
if they wanted a baby that bad I am sure they would have gotten one of their own.kind I am an Cherokee Indian and one of my Grandchildren was in a similar situation because her mother was white she was abuseing my Grandchild and she lost custody to the child father who is Indian.

Brian73's picture
Brian73
Submitted by Brian73 on
This is truly a complex case and I honestly do not know where I come down on it. However, I did find Suzette Brewer's reporting to be a little biased. I find it interesting that in the three part article she pointed out three times that Maldonado received $10,000 from the Capobincos. She also mentions tthre times that Brown received notice to terminate his parental rights, but somehow fails to mention once that Brown did indeed sign away those rights - an important piece of information and pivotal to this case. C'mon Suzette - as you wrote facts are facts!

Linda P.'s picture
Linda P.
Submitted by Linda P. on
Regardless, The Father fought for His daughter, & if you read the previous Parts 1/2 you will see the Non-Native Mother would not allow the father to be involved with her/would not see him or converse with him. so what does that tell you. for her to accept 10,000 plus expenses paid!!! The Father is supposed to share custody for his daughter being sold for adoption!! The Father did not damage his daughter in the media, The "Milgan" couple did by pushing this to the media!!! they are responsible for the damage, just so they could keep the Native Child. Too many children growing up without knowing their culture because they were adopted out.

Malena's picture
Malena
Submitted by Malena on
Here's the thing, while I understand how this is a heritage issue, I don't see why that is where all of the focus is landing. Why not focus on the fact that this man, regardless of where his ancestors came from, was nearly denied his right and privilege to raise this beautiful little girl. This child wasn't stolen by the government and place with white parents, as the ICWA was initially created to prevent. Her non-native mother committed a dis-noble act, which lead to a couple getting attached and then making bad choices in an attempt to keep the child they loved. The one at fault here is the biological mother. I should also hope that anyone here, coming from people who know oppression would feel the same outrage if this were a black or hispanic child, who also have disproportionately high placement rates in foster care and adoption with families of European descent. The same thing that happened to Native Americans happened to the Mayans and the Aztecs and the indigenous tribes of Africa. Let's not make this a race issue, but simply a case of what is right and wrong. In this case, justice is being upheld.

Hui Mei's picture
Hui Mei
Submitted by Hui Mei on
the first time I heard of this case was on facebook. I live in SC and many people throughout the state have connections by family, education or growing up together. It's interesting the media support the Capobiancos have behind them. A friend of mine asked me to support them and spread the word, but I did my own research first. I don't agree with my friends who support these people or with what the Capobiancos are doing. If they actually loved this child, they would let her live in peace with her father. They have that same SC mentality I've seen all my life: fight however you have to to win. Even dirty. and Win at all costs. It's not the prize, but the winning that counts. That's how I see it. A couple who just hate to lose. A mother who just wanted to make money on something she thought she owned (it wouldn't surprise me if she didn't get pregnant with the sole intent of selling her baby.) Of course, this is my own opinion and I'm sure someone on the Capobianco's or Christina's "side" will have something to say about my opinion.
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