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Who Will Care For 'Baby Veronica?'

Jun 21, 2013
Originally published on June 21, 2013 2:03 pm



Now we turn to the Supreme Court. The country is waiting on several rulings, important cases dealing with affirmative action, voting rights, and same-sex marriage. But there are other pending cases with lower profiles that still carry really profound implications for the country.

One of those is the case that concerns a child known as Baby Veronica. The case is called Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. And the basic facts are these - a baby girl was placed with adoptive parents by her Latina mother - partly Latina mother - while her Cherokee father was serving at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Months later, the parents - the adoptive parents served the father with a notice to adopt. He challenged that.

So far, the courts have sided with the biological father, denying the petition to adopt. But the final word on who will care for Baby Veronica now rests with the Supreme Court. Joining us now with more details is Robert Barnes. He's the Supreme Court correspondent for the Washington Post. He's here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome.


HEADLEE: And we also have with us Suzette Brewer. She's a reporter for Indian Country Today, and she joins us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

SUZETTE BREWER: Greetings. Thank you.

HEADLEE: Let me begin with you, Suzette, because this case deals very specifically with the Indian Child Welfare Act, which Congress passed in 1978. Can you explain what exactly this act says that specifically relates to this case?

BREWER: Well, the Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted in 1978 to halt the illegal and sometimes very, shall we say, unsavory adoptions and misplacements of Indian children throughout the centuries. This comes on the heels of the Indian Self-Determination Act that was enacted in 1975 under Nixon.

And so it's a very important piece of legislation that was put in place to ensure that Indian parents have extra protections under the law to prevent their children from being adopted out of the tribe and out from under their families with no say, which is typically had - what had happened in the previous decades and centuries prior to that.

They often times had no say whatsoever in what happened to their children, and they were rounded up and sent off to missions and then boarding schools without the parents having any say whatsoever in the fate of their children. What this did, overtime, was create the disintegration of tribal life in America, because you have a lot of children out there who didn't have that family connection.

They didn't have the linguistic connection. They didn't have the ceremonial connection or the political connection, for that matter. And so what Congress was attempting to do was prevent that and give Indian parents time and legal sort of reinforcement, if you will, to protect their children.

HEADLEE: Let me go to you, Robert, and help me understand the arguments in this case. As I understand it, were it not for the Indian Child Welfare Act, that Suzette was just talking about, this baby girl - not a baby anymore - would be with the adoptive parents.

The Indian Child Welfare Act is what the courts have constantly cited in awarding her to her father. But the case is called Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. Why is Baby Veronica one of the parties in this case?

BARNES: Well, partly because she has someone looking out for her legal interests and that's just the way the case is styled. But as you say, the real importance here is the Indian Child Welfare Act.

In South Carolina and another - number of other states, an unwed father really wouldn't have much say in what happened to the child. The birth mother would be free to put the child up for adoption. It's only because he is a member of the Cherokee Nation that this law comes into play and thus creates this unusual situation.

HEADLEE: And Suzette, that makes this, I have to assume, a case that many people in Indian country are watching closely.

BREWER: Yes, well, here's the issue. The issue ceased being about Veronica many months ago. The minute Paul Clement came on board as the attorney for the Guardian ad Litem and asked for time before the court, it was understood on many levels that this was no longer about whether or not Veronica stayed with her pre-adoptive placement parents.

She was never officially adopted. That was a pre-adoptive placement and it was - what this case is - is an adoption denial appeal. So let's be real clear that these are not adoptive parents and they never had legal parental authority over this child.

This is an adoption denial appeal, and so the reason this is important on a lot of different levels is because what this is going to do, if the court comes down and legislates, for example, who is an Indian, which is really what this case is about, that has the potential to have dire consequences for millions of tribal members who rely on the health and human services that are provided by the tribes. For example, there's education, there's healthcare funding, there's housing, there's all different types of issues that then come into play.


BREWER: And as in the case of Paul Clement, his client is KG Urban, and they are a commercial gaming enterprise in Massachusetts that is seeking to challenge what they consider race-based gaming compacts in that state.

HEADLEE: Okay, hang on second, Suzette. Let me get - let me bring Robert Barnes back into this because much of the argument's centered around race. And the Chief Justice actually made - I think it was the Chief Justice who made a comment about, how Cherokee is Baby Veronica? And in the end, this case is about race.

BARNES: That's right. The parents for - the adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who as Suzette said is right, the adoption did not go through because of this litigation. You know, they have argued that the interest should be about Baby Veronica.

They say that she is a multiethnic child and that the small amount of Indian blood that she carries should not be determinative of how the courts treat her case. The opposite side is just what Suzette said, that they're clearly under the law. Her father was a member of Cherokee Nation. She would be as well, and thus, the special law comes into effect.

HEADLEE: And would this have effect then on other interracial adoptions?

BARNES: Well, I don't know that it would so much on other interracial adoptions, but it would certainly - they're certainly being asked to look at the Indian Child Welfare Act in a different sort of a way, and to rule that, you know, this small amount of Indian blood might not be enough for this child to be characterized, as covered by the law.

HEADLEE: Three two-hundred and fifty-sixth part Cherokee. That's hard to say, but...

BREWER: May I address that, please?

HEADLEE: We - I would love to let you, Suzette, but we only have about 30 seconds left. So we'll have to leave this very interesting discussion for another time. That's Suzette Brewer, reporter for Indian Country Today. And Robert Barnes is with me, as well, Supreme Court correspondent for The Washington Post. Thank you both. I hope we can continue the conversation.

BREWER: Thank you.

BARNES: All right, thank you.

HEADLEE: Coming up, it was a hard-fought NBA Finals, and now Miami Heat players are feeling the love.


UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: What a finish. It's back-to-back titles for the Heat. The 2013 NBA Championship resides once again in Miami.

HEADLEE: But not everyone is feeling so good.


DANNY GREEN: Hurt. Hurt.

HEADLEE: The San Antonio Spurs Danny Green, says he's hurt. But are the barbershop's resident LeBron haters feeling the pain, too? The barbershop guys are up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.