Tahlequah Daily Press


August 20, 2013

ICWA or not, no winners in ‘Veronica’ case

TAHLEQUAH — The stories of “Baby Veronica” and George Zimmerman, who claims he shot teenager Trayvon Martin in self-defense, have two elements in common. Both cases have divided the entire country, and both outcomes are bound to leave one side grieving, outraged and bitter.

A South Carolina couple sought to adopt “Veronica” with approval of her Hispanic birth mother. The wrench in the works is the birth father, a Cherokee Nation citizen. Dusten Brown says that while he did initially relinquish his custodial rights, it was to the birth mother, and for the benefit of his child – not for adoption to an unknown couple across the country. When he learned of the plans, he sought custody, and after being rebuffed by the U.S. Supreme Court, turned to the Cherokee Nation.

This sad situation has been a topic of heated discussion, with few taking the middle ground. The girl has now been with Brown and his family for a year and a half, but the would-be adoptive parents are fighting back, using the muscle of the South Carolina legal system against the equally weighty interests of the tribe.

 For a disinterested third party (if one could be found), the conclusion might seem obvious: The welfare of the child should be only issue. But it’s not that simple. Some argue the girl is better off with her adoptive parents, claiming Brown’s motives aren’t pure. Those who insist the girl should stay with Brown are in two camps: Either they base their decision on the fact that he has her now, and she’s happy and healthy; or because of past tragedies involving American Indian “child-stealing,” they say Veronica has a right to be raised in the culture she shares with other Cherokees.

Though plenty of emotionally charged opinions are being rendered, most people don’t understand the intricacies, and many have fallen prey to propaganda and misleading news bites. Most of those churning out news bites haven’t a clue, either.

Many who side with the South Carolina couple don’t realize that, despite their rhetoric, Veronica was not adopted “at birth.” Adoptions are not usually final for at least six months, and a birth parent can often waylay the plans during this period. On the other hand, it’s difficult to judge Brown’s motives, or to know which of the stories circulated about him is closest to the truth. Those who paint him as a man who “abandoned” his child and changed his mind can’t prove their case. But those who say he never relinquished his rights at any time can’t be certain, either, because frankly, they’re mostly distant observers, not family friends. What does seem clear is that he opposed the adoption when he learned about it.

The law Brown is using to keep his daughter – the Indian Child Welfare Act – is also widely misunderstood. The 1978 law came about in the wake of illegal adoptions – kidnapping, in many cases – that either landed children in boarding schools or forcibly thrust them into “white society,” with no further contact with their heritage and people. Despite media reports generated by folks with questionable research skills, ICWA is not about race; it’s about tribal sovereignty. It’s less about Dusten Brown’s right as the biological father than it is about Veronica’s right to be raised within her culture.

Though ICWA doesn’t preclude adoption of Indian children into non-Indian families, it allows the tribe to determine placement. Usually this follows the family chain to nearest kin, and if that’s not feasible, the child may be placed in a non-Indian home. The key is that the tribe decides – not some “private adoption lawyer,” an out-of-state couple desperate for any child regardless of circumstances, or the media. This may seem unfair to non-Indians, but it is what it is.

ICWA aside, a valid argument can also be advanced that, since Veronica’s been living happily with her biological father for more than a year and a half, there’s no reason to uproot her again. That same point might have been raised when she was taken from the would-be adopters – but that was then, and this is now.

The South Carolina couple is in a horrible predicament, and it’s hard not to have sympathy for them, even though evidence suggests they knew the adoption was on shaky ground, and though they’re now using a reality TV star as their front man. Should these details factor in? And how much weight should Brown’s initial reactions be given? What about the adoption attorney, who obviously knew something was hinky?

The shyster may have done the “crime,” but the legal adoption system will likely serve the time. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it is this: non-Indians should tread lightly, and legally, if they’re looking to take in an Indian child. And biological parents of any stripe should think long and hard before signing anything.

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