COLUMBIA — Veronica’s entire 4-year-old life has been lived at the center of a protracted custody dispute between her biological Native American father and a couple in South Carolina chosen as adoptive parents by her mother.
Now that the legal fight is over, the struggle to create a normal existence for the young Cherokee girl begins.
On Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to uphold a stay keeping Veronica with her father, Dusten Brown, and ordered that custody be turned over to Matt and Melanie Capobianco, of Charleston.
The Capobiancos began the journey back from Oklahoma to Veronica’s new permanent home after the resolution of a yearslong battle involving questions of jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty in Native American and U.S. courts.
In a statement released Tuesday, the couple said they had been able to visit Veronica before regaining custody, which “allowed us to reconnect as a family and ease her transition home.”
“We are all doing well, and our focus now is on healing and getting our life back to normal,” they said.
The Cherokee Nation fought on Brown’s behalf for permanent custody, but late Monday, the tribe’s attorney general, Todd Hembree, indicated the fight was over. In a statement, Hembree expressed hope that the Capobiancos would “honor their word” to allow Brown to remain an important part of the girl’s life.
“We also look forward to her visiting the Cherokee Nation for many years to come, for she is always welcome,” he added.
The Capobiancos have repeatedly said they wanted to honor Veronica’s Cherokee heritage, and at one point, with the help of adoption consultants and experts, they laid out a transition plan that included keeping Brown in Veronica’s life.
But the most recent negotiations on a settlement for shared custody or visitations broke down Monday, a few hours before the Oklahoma court ruled. Details of the proposed compromise were not publicly released.
“While we are overjoyed to bring Veronica home, we sympathize with the Brown family during this difficult time,” the Capobiancos said. “Despite our differences, and everything that has happened over the last several months, we all love Veronica and want what is best for her.”
When they get home, their priority should be creating the stable life that Veronica has lacked, experts say.
“The saga she’s been through really seems to be this tragic tale of law and adults who talk about the best interest of the child but don’t seem to be doing what’s in the best interest of the child,” said Dr. Naranjan Karnik, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry at Chicago’s Rush University.
Dr. Philip Fisher, a psychologist specializing in childhood trauma at the University of Oregon, says children who have been in unsettled home environments can suffer. At 4 years old, traumatic changes can hamper development in the part of the brain that helps make good decisions, he said.
Veronica was born Sept. 15, 2009, to a non-Native American mother who decided to give her up for adoption. She chose the Capobiancos, in South Carolina, as her adoptive parents.
But Brown also had petitioned for custody, and in December, 2011, after Veronica had lived with the Capobiancos for a little more than two years, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the father’s favor. Veronica went to live with Brown in Oklahoma.
Two more years passed, and the tables turned again: The U.S. Supreme Court – responding to a challenge from the Capobiancos – ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act did not apply because Brown had been absent from the child’s life. The South Carolina courts finalized the couple’s adoption and ordered Brown to hand Veronica over. Two Oklahoma courts certified the order.
Brown was still hoping that the Oklahoma Supreme Court would refuse to lift a stay in place to keep Veronica with him. But the court declined, and Veronica was transferred to the Capobiancos.
Justice Noma Gurich dissented.
“We cannot ignore the fact that (Veronica), at the age of 27 months, has already been moved from one set of ‘parents’ to another, after lengthy judicial consideration of her best interests,” Gurich wrote. “Under the issues present to this court, an immediate change of custody without any consideration of her best interests will require a four-year-old child to resolve her feelings of loss and grief for a second time.”