COLUMBIA — South Carolina’s highest court on Wednesday refused to rehear a case involving a Charleston-area couple’s attempts to adopt a girl of Cherokee heritage, setting up a family court action – and potentially a federal lawsuit.
The girl’s biological father and the Cherokee Nation had asked justices to reconsider their earlier order that a family court finalize the adoption of Veronica, now 3 years old, by Matt and Melanie Capobianco. Present at her birth, the Charleston-area couple raised the girl for the first 27 months of her life and have been seeking to adopt her ever since.
South Carolina courts originally said the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act favored Veronica living with her biological father, Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation. That federal law seeks to keep Indian children from being taken from their homes and placed with non-Indian families.
Brown had never met his daughter but objected when he discovered that Veronica was going to be adopted, saying the law favored the girl living with him and growing up learning tribal traditions.
Brown took custody in 2011, after the South Carolina Supreme Court’s initial ruling, and Veronica has been living with him since then in Oklahoma. The Capobiancos appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled last month that South Carolina courts should decide who gets to adopt the girl.
Last week, state justices ordered a family court to finalize the couple’s adoption, a decision they upheld Wednesday by a 3-2 margin. Acknowledging that their 2011 ruling – the ruling that the Capobiancos appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court – was ill-founded, the justices pointed out that they have consistently found that the biological father’s parental rights had been terminated, therefore giving him no standing to contest the adoption proceedings.
Several American Indian groups recently said they were planning to file a federal lawsuit to protect Veronica’s interests if the state court denied the request, saying a hearing is needed to determine the best interests of the child.
In a statement, the groups said they would pursue the lawsuit but gave no timetable, calling the case “an alarming failure of the judicial system.”
In their order Wednesday, the justices said they believed that adoption by the Capobiancos “is in the best interests of Baby Girl” – the moniker by which Veronica is known in court documents. The couple, the court wrote, has committed to rearing the girl “in a manner that maintains a meaningful connectedness to her Native American heritage” and also has proposed a plan for transitioning her from life with her biological father in Oklahoma.
“This emotionally charged case was fully litigated,” the court wrote. “This case has reached finality, in this unchallenged forum and jurisdiction. That finality should be honored.”
The order commands the family court to act “forthwith” but sets no actual timetable on finalizing the adoption or returning the girl to South Carolina.