Adoption Case Brings Rare Family Law Dispute To High Court After a South Carolina couple adopted a baby girl, her biological father sought full custody. Normally, the Supreme Court does not hear such disputes, but this case tests a federal law meant to stop Native American children's being improperly taken from their families.


Adoption Case Brings Rare Family Law Dispute To High Court

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Throughout this morning, we're covering the explosions at the Boston Marathon. Three people are dead, many injured. Despite news reports to the contrary yesterday, police have said they do not have a suspect in custody. It's worth remembering that immediately after any tragedy, the most spectacular initial news reports are often wrong, and even facts that seem obvious turn out not to be facts.


We are also tracking other news on this Tuesday morning, and that includes a custody dispute that goes before the U.S. Supreme Court today. At issue is the reach of the Indian Child Welfare Act, known as ICWA. The law was enacted in 1978, to protect Indian tribes from having their children almost literally stolen away and given to white, adoptive or foster parents. The case is likely of special interest to two of the justices - John Roberts and Clarence Thomas - who both have adopted children. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: First, there's the tragic saga of this case. Christy Maldonado was an American of Hispanic heritage. She was engaged to be married to Dusten Brown, who considers himself Cherokee though technically, he's about 2 percent Native American. In 2009, Christy, a casino worker in Oklahoma and single mother of two, learned she was pregnant and told Dusten. But the relationship deteriorated, and she broke off the engagement.

Beyond these facts, the protagonists in this story agree on little. One fact, though, is beyond dispute: Whatever happened in the first few months of the pregnancy, Dusten eventually texted Christy that he was giving up his parental rights and would not support the child.

CHRISTY MALDONADO: It punched me in the gut, knowing that the father of my child did not want her at all. And that's when I pretty much decided I had to do something because I could barely even put food on the table for the kids, at that time.

TOTENBERG: She decided to put her child up for adoption. Through an agency, she found a couple in South Carolina she liked, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, and the three agreed to an open adoption. The Capobiancos were in the delivery room for the birth, and Matt cut the umbilical cord. A month earlier, Christy, through her lawyer, sent a letter notifying the Cherokee Tribe of her adoption plans, giving them a chance to intervene under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The tribe said it had no record of Dusten Brown as a tribal member, so the adoption went forward.

Four months after the birth of the baby girl - as Dusten was about to deploy to Iraq, and as the adoption was about to become final - Dusten was served with papers notifying him of the adoption. He initially signed off on them but within days, filed an objection, invoking the Indian Child Welfare Act. He says that in agreeing to give up his parental rights, he thought he was relinquishing his daughter to Christy.

DUSTEN BROWN: I just figured the best interest would be - would be for her to have the full custody of her, but for me to still be in the picture, and be able to come visit and stuff.

TOTENBERG: Now, however, he sought full custody of his daughter. And while there's no doubt that he would not have had a leg to stand on in state court, the South Carolina courts ruled the federal law trumped state law. Sixteen months ago, the Capobiancos were ordered to give their then 2-year-old child to her biological father, a man she'd never met.

MATT CAPOBIANCO: It was by far the worst day of our lives, and I'm sure of hers.

MELANIE CAPOBIANCO: She cried after us.

TOTENBERG: The adoptive parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, backed by the mother and the guardian ad litem, appointed by the South Carolina Family Court to represent the best interests of the child. Normally, the Supreme Court does not hear such family law disputes, but this case is a test of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The law was enacted after extensive investigations and hearings revealed that 35 to 40 percent of the children born to Native American parents were being improperly removed and given to white, adoptive and foster parents. Charles Rothfeld, Dusten Brown's lawyer, notes that these abuses were catastrophic for the tribes.

CHARLES ROTHFELD: They were, you know, at risk of becoming extinct because their children were literally being taken away from them.

TOTENBERG: To prevent that, ICWA established a chain of adoptions for children with any Indian heritage. In the event that neither parent could take custody, other Indian family members were to have priority and after that, tribal adoptive parents. Just how you see this case is something of a Rorschach test, with the adoptive parents seeing it one way; the father, another; the mother, yet another; and the court-appointed guardian, still another. As the adoptive parents see it, they were not stealing a child from an Indian parent because he'd given up his parental rights. And as the Capobiancos' lawyer, Lisa Blatt, puts it, the federal law was meant to protect Indian children from being snatched from their existing Indian families.

LISA BLATT: Even if he was a parent who could invoke the statute, the Indian Child Welfare Act only protects those parents who already have a prior custodial relationship.

TOTENBERG: Not so, say the tribes. They see the case as an attempt to undo the protections that Congress created, in the face of evidence that state courts had abused the rights of tribal parents. Charles Rothfeld.

ROTHFELD: And so Congress decided it had to step in and create special federal rules superseding the state custody rules that would govern where Indian child custody was at stake.

TOTENBERG: For women, the case is about the autonomy of non-Indian mothers. The birth mother's lawyer, Lori Alvino McGill, contends that if Indian fathers can sweep in this way, based only on biology, why couldn't sperm donors or rapists do the same thing?

LORI ALVINO MCGILL: No other set of men can choose to kind of sit back, renounce all responsibility but hold a back pocket veto to an adoption choice.

TOTENBERG: The guardian ad litem, represented by lawyer Paul Clement, says there's no box to check like the one that Dusten Brown is seeking.

PAUL CLEMENT: Generally, you're not allowed to say, well, look, I don't really want to give you any financial support; I don't really want to have much to do with this child. But I do really want you, the person I've just gotten pregnant - I want you to take care of this child, and I don't want you to do something like give up this child for adoption.

TOTENBERG: What's more, adds Clement, under state law, it is the best interests of the child that prevail.

CLEMENT: Except if this federal statute applies, and applies only on the basis of her Indian heritage, well then, everything changes. And it just, you know, completely shifts the focus of the whole proceeding around based on race. Well, that's something that we generally wouldn't think the Constitution allows.

TOTENBERG: Native Americans bristle at the charge of racial classification. Indian tribes, they note, are quasi-sovereign nations recognized by the U.S. Constitution.


TOTENBERG: Chrissi Nimmo, assistant attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, on "The Dr. Phil Show."


TOTENBERG: Whatever the Supreme Court rules in June, the case of "Baby Girl," as she is known, is heartbreaking. No one disputes that she was sublimely happy with her adoptive parents; and videos of her with her father, now married, seem to show a little girl equally happy. Her birth mother says that while she spent time with her child at the adoptive parents' home, and spoke with her child on the phone, she now does not know where her daughter is. Neither do the adoptive parents. Dusten Brown says he's kept his daughter apart for the last 16 months, to allow her to become used to her new home, away from the chaos and bitterness of the legal fight.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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