Veronica has lived in two homes. Two years with her adoptive family, in South Carolina. Two years with her biological father, a member of the Cherokee nation, in Oklahoma. All the while her life was in the hands of various courts in the American legal system. The case got so tangled, combining adoption law with a law designed to protect the children of Native Americans, that the Supreme Court stepped in. The details of the case are long, and heart-wrenching. Do yourself a favor and listen to the background of the story on Radiolab.
While the Court's decision favors the adoptive couple, their ruling was narrow. According to the majority opinion, the South Carolina court that ruled in the biological father's favor incorrectly invoked the Indian Child Welfare Act, which prioritizes Native American parents for Native American children up for adoption. The case now goes back to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which has the immense task of deciding which family the girl should live with. It won't be cut and dry — and the justices will take the overall welfare of the child into consideration. (It may be better off, at this point, to keep the girl with her biological father.)
And the case becomes even more of a mess with this update: The biological father and the paternal grandparents have now filed for the adoption of Veronica in the Cherokee Nation District Court. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor did underscore that the majority's decision did not invalidate the Indian Child Welfare Act, just the way it was used in this case. If the biological father's custody is taken away from him, members of an Indian tribe still might get preference in an adoption (that's why his parents are filing as well). Also, in filing for adoption, the biological father will surely slow up the proceedings, seeing how multiple states' and Cherokee legal systems will be in play.
The case could, conceivably, wind its way back to the Supreme Court. Again.
The Tulsa World explains:
.... [T]he girl's biological father and his wife, Dusten and Robin Brown, have filed adoption papers in Nowata County, where Veronica has lived with them for the last 18 months.
"Oklahoma rules provide for jurisdiction over children who reside here six months or more," explained Jason Aamodt, assistant dean at the University of Tulsa's law school.
"The complicating factor is that Baby Veronica came to Oklahoma under an order from the South Carolina courts."
So it may ultimately fall to the federal courts — conceivably even the U.S. Supreme Court again — to decide which state has jurisdiction.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post stated that the Dusten Brown, the biological father, filed for adoption in Oklahoma. He filed for adoption in the Cherokee Nation District Court.
CLARIFICATION: The Cherokee Nation sent me an email explaining that the South Carolina couple's adoption was not "invalidated" by the South Carolina Supreme Court. Instead "The South Carolina Supreme Court denied an attempted adoption, relying, in part, on ICWA. The United States Supreme Court found two provisions regarding termination of parental rights did not apply to the father and remanded the case for further proceedings." Which kind of underscores how much of a confusing legal tangle this episode is.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.