Cherokee Nation Assistant Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo speaks at the April 8 press conference concerning the case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa. (NICWA)

Q&A With Cherokee Counsel for Baby Veronica Case: The Supreme Court Decision Will Impact Every Tribe in the Country

Brian Daffron

After the April 8 press conference at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa in which the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) and the Cherokee Nation shared the latest developments in the case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with Chrissi Nimmo, the counsel of record for the Cherokee Nation.

In the "Baby Veronica Case" that has generated significant media interest in the past year, Cherokee Nation tribal member Dusten Brown is fighting to retain custody of his daughter. This particular case has consisted of a vast coalition of attorneys and support from tribes and tribal organizations, including the Native American Rights Fund, the National Congress of American Indians and NICWA. With future implications of the Indian Child Welfare Act on the line, the case will be heard in the United States Supreme Court on April 16, with an actual decision taking place by June of this year.

What has been your involvement?

I represented Cherokee Nation in South Carolina in family court in September 2011 when it went to trial the first time. It was a four-day trial in Charleston [South Carolina]. I then represented Cherokee Nation and presented oral argument at the South Carolina Supreme Court when it was appealed there. I am also counsel of record for the United States Supreme Court.

Do you consider the attention to the Indian Child Welfare Act positive or negative right now?

I think it’s both. This case has grown a lot of attention to the Indian Child Welfare Act. A lot of people who don’t understand it, don’t like it. I also think it’s good in that more people know about it. Once people really understand why the law was passed and what it’s intended to do and what it is doing, it sometimes changes from bad attention to good intention.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Dusten Brown and his family, what will this mean for the Indian Child Welfare Act?

There are splits in the state court system. One way or the other, the Supreme Court will answer those questions. If they affirm the lower court decision, it’s a strong statement to state courts across the country that they need to follow the Indian Child Welfare Act to a T.

What would happen if they rule against the Indian Child Welfare Act in the Supreme Court?

It would be devastating for Indian children, but it would be devastating for tribes as well. There are bigger Indian law issues wrapped up in this case. A detrimental decision could call into question several other federal laws that deal with tribes as tribal organizations but also as Natives as individuals.

What has the preparation been like for this case?

For the last four months, I’ve worked on nothing but this case. I was fortunate to have other co-workers that could take over my other duties.

What are you anticipating from the adoptive couple side of the case?

We know what their legal arguments are, because the briefs are already all done. That’s where the oral argument is an hour total. In this case, four different attorneys are speaking. Most of that time is spent with the Justices asking questions. I don’t think there’s going to be anything that’s a surprise.

How will this case change the Indian Child Welfare Act?

I think it’s one of two outcomes. If what we believe happens and what we think should legally happen, it strengthens the enforcement of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The other situation is a loss for a father of the Cherokee Nation. It would undo [over] 35 years of work on the Indian Child Welfare Act. Any adverse decision would impact every tribe in the country. There’s no doubt.

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Xenia Andrews's picture
Xenia Andrews
Submitted by Xenia Andrews on
Like I said where is Our RIGHTS. You send out children to abusive homes just like you sent our Ancestors to Boarding Schools to Be Abused By the Catholic Churches. Now majority of My People are Disfunctional all Alcoholics, Low Self Esteem. And wondering what Tribe they belong too. The welfare Dept. only checks on our Children ONCE a year. And if ABUSE is Reported the workers just sweep it under the RUG. Our young children are afraid to say any thing due to what will happen to them later when the Social Worker Leaves. The Cloths that are given too them are taken away and given to there own Children. They only Dress up When the Social Worker is making a Visit to the Adoptive Homes. Still Destroying My People. Also it States that NO Native American Children are allowed to be taken from their Native families. I grew up with Caucasians who made me feel like I was Nothing Because I was an INDIAN. I am a Survivor. So I say let the Child be with Her Father she will be better OFF.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
For 35 years of work on the Child Welfare Act. . I'm not impressed the whole thing needs to be undone and rebuilt from the bottom up. T.L.E. Unless I am missing something!!

Ramona Craycraft's picture
Ramona Craycraft
Submitted by Ramona Craycraft on
It is wrong to separate Indian children from their tribes. I feel lik the couples who adopt them are treating them like dogs. Do I want a black c hild, an Indian child or a chinese girl? For centuries, Indian children havebeen torn from their families to "adapt" them and absorb them into "American" society so that the Indian problem will go away.

4thekids's picture
Submitted by 4thekids on
Unfortunately the tribes, especially the Cherokee tribe, are developing a very bad reputation and image as people see the devastating effects of the tribes fighting so hard to remove Indian children from non-Indian homes that they have lived in for months and even years, not considering what's best for the children.

quedi's picture
Submitted by quedi on
I am a great grandmother who, with my family, has had to involve, first the state police, and then a private investigator to chase down my grandson-in-law in another state after he kidnapped my great grandson during his regularly scheduled "visit." Once in that state, it took my granddaughter 7 months to get her child back. We found them living in a dilapidated, dirty trailer in the middle of a desert miles away from any kind of services, if needed. We had to call on ICWA to ensure that we have some kind of protection. When our ICWA worker testified in court, the little guy's white grandmother stood up and yelled "Indian? So what? I'm Indian too!" The judge asked her what tribe, and she answered "American." Every time my great grandson visits his dad, he comes back telling us that his dad said he is going to take him away so he can't see his mom anymore. Is ICWA flawed? Perhaps! But it's the best, and sometimes, the only legal protection our children have. Work to make it better, but don't throw it away! As Indian people who endured forced adoptions, boarding school abuses, and generations of sub-standard health and educational services, we know how little non-Indian outsiders care about our children. It's up to us to protect them.

4thekids's picture
Submitted by 4thekids on
Ramona, Be careful to not just repeat what the tribes tell you. Most of the Indian children that are being removed from non-Indian foster homes, have had no relationship with their tribes before they were placed in non-Indian foster homes. That's because most of the children are multi racial and their parents did not raise them with any Indian culture. In spite of this, many of these foster homes care about their foster children learning about their Indian heritage, taking them to pow wows, teaching them their Indian language etc. They often do a much better job of teaching the children about Indian heritage than the tribal foster homes do. Many of the tribal homes don't even know their own Indian heritage. There are not enough tribal foster homes. Many Indian children would stay in the shelters if non-Indian foster families were not willing to care for them. I am one of these foster families and know many other such foster families. I am grateful for their care of Indian children.

Tsiquaya's picture
Submitted by Tsiquaya on
@4thekids - Dusten Brown, the father in this case, filed for his parental rights within a few days of learning that his daughter was being adopted. The "adoptive" parents in this case should have let the little girl rejoin her blood family then. The 'adoptive' parents kept the child for years while fighting her natural father (who wanted her all along) for custody. The baby would not have bonded with the 'adoptive parents' if they had done what was right in the beginning.

Erik L. Smith's picture
Erik L. Smith
Submitted by Erik L. Smith on
I disagree that he Oklahoma court's decision about the validity of the ICPC placement in South Carolina was the law of the case. Is it possible to raise the ICPC issue now in the arguments to SCOTUS? IMO, the SC court had jurisdiction to find that the unapproved placement left the child unavailable for adoption by that SC couple.

Judy Lenora Klein
Judy Lenora Klein
Submitted by Judy Lenora Klein on
I think if a biological parent wants to raise their child and is capable they should. This bigger picture here is the flaws in adoption laws themselves.