On July 26, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a decision affirming the return of Veronica, an adopted 2-year-old Cherokee child, to her biological father, Dusten Brown. The court’s decision was devastating for her adoptive parents, Melanie and Matt Capobianco, who had been raising the child since her birth after her biological mother willingly gave her up for adoption. "I'll always remember her crying when we had to—we had to walk out of that office and leave her there," said Melanie Capobianco referring to Veronica’s reunification with Brown. “We’re kind of reeling from it, and reliving having to hand her over in our minds constantly is painful,” the couple added.
Since Veronica’s reunification with Brown in January, the Capobiancos have been fighting ceaselessly for her return. Veronica’s case has garnered national attention and unprecedented support. For months, pictures of the smiling toddler with her adoptive parents have been splashed across South Carolina papers and featured on CNN and in the Weekly Standard. Moreover, these news stories about "Baby Veronica" almost uniformly support the Capobiancos, with articles and commentary expressing outrage at the fact that although South Carolina law supports terminating Brown’s parental rights due to his lack of involvement and financial support before and after Veronica’s birth, this state law is superseded by an “obscure law” or “federal loophole” known as the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
ICWA is a federal statute that regulates the custody and placement of American Indian children. Brown is an enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe, and Veronica is also eligible for membership. As a result, ICWA applies to Veronica’s adoption, supersedes state law, and mandates her reunification with Brown. Many Native American law scholars and advocates believe that ICWA is the most important American Indian law ever enacted, but its application in this case has caused fury. More than 20,000 people have signed the “Save Veronica” petition, which calls for an amendment to ICWA to prevent the return of children like Veronica. However, ICWA is no “loophole.” The act specifically contemplated situations like Veronica’s, and in this case, ICWA operated exactly as it was intended to.
ICWA was enacted in 1978 “to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the stability and security of Indian tribes and families.” It was also a federal recognition of the long history of forced removal of American Indian children from their families and tribes by nontribal public and private agencies. Beginning in 1869, the United States removed thousands of American Indian children from their families and tribes and sent them to government boarding schools. In these schools, American Indian children were given European names, forbidden to speak their own language, barred from practicing their religion or culture, and prevented from seeing their families. Hundreds (some say thousands) of American Indian children never returned and were lost to their families and tribes. Eventually, the boarding schools were shut down, but they were replaced with an equally devastating policy of nonnative adoption. Between 1958 and 1967, the Indian Adoption Act was used to remove hundreds of Native American children from their homes and place them with adoptive families who were not American Indians. The purpose of these policies was assimilation—the extinction of the tribes as separate entities.
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