CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - The Supreme Court of the United States decided Tuesday that Veronica should be returned to her adoptive parents on James Island.
The close 5-4 decision reverses a previous decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court, which ruled Veronica's father, Dusten Brown, was entitled to custody of the child based on the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion, which reads:
Contrary to the State Supreme Court's ruling, we hold that the ICWA, which bars involuntary termination of a parent's rights in the absence of a heightened showing that serious harm to the Indian child is likely to result from the parent's "continued custody" of the child - does not apply when, as here, the relevant parent never had custody of the child.
We further hold that the act, which conditions involuntary termination of parental rights with respect to an Indian child on a showing that remedial efforts have been made to prevent the "breakup of the Indian family" - is inapplicable when,. as here, the parent abandoned the Indian child before birth and never had custody of the child.
Finally, we clarify that the act, which provides placement preferences for the adoption of Indian children, does not bar a non-Indian family like [the Capobiancos] from adopting an Indian child when no other eligible candidates have sought to adopt the child.
The case will be sent back to the South Carolina Supreme Court for reconsideration.
Former South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon says the battle is "far from over."
Professor Lisa Smith-Butler at the Charleston School of Law says the case must be returned to the S.C. Supreme Court within 25 days. Smith-Butler opined that the state court is likely to remand the case back to family court in Charleston.
The Capobiancos expressed their appreciation of the ruling on Tuesday afternoon, "We just want to say that we're very happy with the ruling today. The Supreme Court gave us everything we could ask for. They made it very clear that Veronica would have never been taken from her home or her family, and that the adoption would have been approved. So we're really excited about that and we're looking forward to seeing her again soon when we have the opportunity to do so because we miss her so very much."
Reflecting on the difficulties of the last year and half, the couple said, "It's been horrible…very hard. We miss her a lot, a ton, as any parent would miss their child, so it's been very hard."
"This has been a living hell for [the Capobiancos] ... I would not wish this upon any parent to have to go through ...We are all very hopeful that Veronica will now have the opportunity to have a life surrounded by everyone that loves her" said the family's spokesperson, Jessica Munday.
Veronica's biological mother, Christy Maldonado, also expressed relief at the decision:
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.
Meanwhile, Cherokee Nation Chief Bill John Baker addressed the ruling in a press conference, saying, "While we are thankful the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Indian Child Welfare Act and protected the 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 by continuing to live with her biological father, Dusten Brown. My heart, and no doubt the heart of Indian country, goes out to Dusten, our fellow Cherokee, his entire family, his parents, his wife, and two small children, including Veronica. Every thing this family has gone through the past few years just to keep [Veronica], his baby girl, is more overwhelming than any of us can imagine."
"Keeping Veronica Brown with her family is what is best for her, her family, the Cherokee Nation, and all of Indian country. The Cherokee Nation remains committed to the protection of 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 home. Their fight is our fight, and we will be there every step of the way."
Earlier Tuesday, the nonprofit National Indian Child Welfare Association also released a statement reaffirming their support for Brown and his family:
We are relieved that the Indian Child Welfare Act was upheld today. This opinion confirms that Congress retains the authority to protect Indian children. The case has been sent back to the South Carolina Supreme Court based on a technicality. Although we are deeply disappointed that this case is not over, Dusten will continue to fight for his daughter and we believe that he will prevail and that Veronica will stay with her family.