Indian Adoption Dispute Settled by U.S. Supreme Court

Posted by Steven D. Eversole | Jul 17, 2013 | 0 Comments

No matter what the U.S. Supreme Court Justices decided, the result was going to be unfair to someone.

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In the incredibly complex and emotionally-charged adoption/custody case ofAdoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, there were no clear-cut right answers from the beginning. The court was tasked with the unenviable duty of determining which of two loving families would gain custody of a young girl whose short life has been wracked with turmoil.

Our Birmingham adoption lawyers know that family law cases involving child custody are often the most wrenching. Sorting through questions of who is best suited to care for a child often doesn't come down to clear-cut, black-and-white answers. In many cases, all involved love the child immensely. All want what is best for the child. However, they may have stark differences of opinions about what "best" means.

Having an experienced family law attorney to represent you in these cases is critical. Sometimes, as this case shows, it can stretch beyond a familiarity with local and state laws and practices.

In this instance, the ruling was ultimately decidedly narrow, meaning it may not have significant implications for future cases of similar circumstances.

Here's what happened: 

The girl's father, a Native American member of the Cherokee Nation, and mother were not married. The mother reportedly rebuffed his marriage proposal and left him early on in the pregnancy. He played no role in the pregnancy and did not pay child support for the girl after she was born.

However, when the father learned that his former girlfriend had placed the girl up for adoption to a non-native couple in South Carolina, he vehemently objected. He said the law, specifically the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, favored the girl coming to live with him and growing up learning the tribal traditions.

Although the girl was 2 years-old at the time and for her whole life had lived with this would-be adoptive couple in South Carolina, the lower courts sided with the father and gave him custody in 2011. She has been raised by him in Oklahoma ever since.

However, the adoptive couple, who had been present at the girl's birth and had raised her from that time, appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

At issue were two competing interpretations of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The law was enacted by Congress in response to the alarmingly high number of Indian children who were being removed from their native homes by both private and public agencies. The ultimate intent is to protect the best interests of Indian children and to promote the security and stability of Indian tribes and families.

(Here in Alabama, we have the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who reside on a reservation near Atmore, in rural Escambia County, about 60 miles east of Mobile.)

The more expansive view weighed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the one held by the girl's biological father, was that the ICWA is applicable any time the court is considering whether to terminate the rights of a parent who is Native American.

The more narrow interpretation of the law, held by the South Carolina couple, was that the coverage of ICWA is limited to the types of cases that Congress most likely had in mind when it passed the ICWA. That would primarily include cases in which government officials or social workers are seeking to remove Native American children from their existing Native American family, not simply when a non-Native mother puts a child up for adoption who happens to have a Native American father.

In a split 5-4 decision, the justices sided with the South Carolina couple. In writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito noted that throughout the pregnancy, the father was not present. He did not involve himself in the girl's life for the first four months after she was born, nor at any point did he supply financial help. At no point until after he learned of adoption plans did he seek legal custody of the girl.

It wasn't until that point, Alito noted, that the father brought up the issue of ICWA.

Primarily, the court based its ruling on the idea of "continuing custody." This is the theory that a family that was never intact can't be broken. Alito went on to write that even if the father had met the standards of parental requirements mandated under ICWA, it wouldn't necessarily stop the court from terminating his parental rights because at the time of the girl's adoption, he did not have legal or biological custody of the girl.

As mentioned earlier, these cases can be incredibly complex. Someone was bound to be hurt, and this will inevitably prove a difficult transition for the girl, who will now be sent back to live with the South Carolina couple after spending more than 18 months with her biological father.

If you are seeking advice on Birmingham child adoption or custody, contact Birmingham Family Law Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.

Additional Resources:

Supreme Court Rules for Adoptive Family in Dispute, June 25, 2013, By Liz Halloran and Korva Coleman, NPR.org

About the Author

Steven D. Eversole

J.D., Samford University's Cumberland School of Law, Birmingham, Alabama B.A., University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama

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