The Supreme Court says legal custody of a Native American child doesn't have to be given to her biological father because of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The justices ruled 5-4 Tuesday in a case about a federal law intended to keep Indian children from being taken from their homes and typically placed with non-Indian adoptive or foster parents.
South Carolina courts said the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act favored the biological father of the girl. The South Carolina couple who raised her for the first 27 months of her life appealed that decision.
State courts have been at odds on the law's application but justices said a ruling giving the father a "trump card at the eleventh hour" to get the girl might not be in the child's best interest.
The decision found the South Carolina court erred in citing the Indian Child Welfare Act prevented them from terminating the rights of the biological father and the case will return to the South Carolina court.
Veronica has been living with her biological father in Oklahoma for the last year and a half during the custody case.
Veronica’s birth mother, Christy Maldonado, released the following statement:
“We are so incredibly grateful for today’s decision. The Supreme Court has clarified that the Indian Child Welfare Act does not apply to this case, and other cases like this one, where a biological father had no interest in fatherhood before the child’s birth, and a single mother like me has made the difficult and personal decision that it’s in her child’s best interest to be placed with a loving adoptive family.
Today’s opinion makes clear that Veronica’s adoption should have been finalized long ago, and gives us all the opportunity to continue fighting for Veronica’s best interests. I’m also hopeful it will spare many other children and families the heartbreak that Veronica, the Capobiancos, and I have had to endure.
Matt and Melanie are part of my family, and they have treated me like part of theirs. I’m hopeful that we will all be reunited with Veronica very soon.”
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker released this statement about the court's ruling:
"While we are thankful that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act and protected a law vital to the survival of Indian country, we are deeply, deeply disappointed that this case was not fully resolved.
We believe Veronica Brown’s best interests are served continuing to live in a loving home with her biological father Dusten Brown.
My heart, and no doubt the hearts of all of Indian Country, goes out to Dusten, our fellow Cherokee citizen, and his entire family – his parents, his wife and two small children, including Veronica.
Everything this family has gone through the past few years, just to keep his biological child—HIS baby girl— is more overwhelming than any of us can imagine.
Keeping Veronica Brown with her family is what’s best for her, her family, the Cherokee Nation and all of Indian Country.
The Cherokee Nation remains committed to the protection of all Indian children and families.
And we will continue to support the Brown family with our thoughts, prayers and every available resource we have, so that they can keep their family whole.
Their fight is our fight, and we will be there every step of the way.
Cherokee Nation Assistant Attorney General Chrissi Nimmo also released a statement:
“It has always been the position of the Cherokee Nation that Veronica’s best interests are served by her placement with her father. The Cherokee Nation will remain involved in this case because we believe it is in Veronica’s best interest to remain with her father and her tribe in Oklahoma.
Today’s ruling is a disappointing decision for juvenile law in general and it is a bad decision for unwed fathers, not just American Indian unwed fathers. However, we were pleased the provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act were upheld for Native children and families.
In addition to ongoing involvement in this case, the Cherokee Nation will continue its work to protect Indian children and their families. We will also continue to educate the community, as well as child welfare professionals, on the continued need for the Indian Child Welfare Act and the importance of complying with it in every case that involves an Indian child.”