ELLSWORTH, Maine – June 26, 2013 – The Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) joins American Indian and Native rights leaders in expressing concern about yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl,” a case that has polarized child welfare advocates across the country.
In a 5-4 decision, the court held that an Indian biological father does not have the right to halt the adoption of his daughter, a now three-year-old girl named Veronica, to a non-Indian couple.
One of the TRC’s five Commissioners Carol Wishcamper said, “The intent of [the Indian Child Welfare Act] was to maintain the continuity of cultural and social tribal heritage. We are hopeful that further consideration will uphold the intent as well as the letter of the law.”
The Supreme Court’s decision follows a nearly four-year custody battle between a South Carolina couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, and Dusten Brown, Veronica’s biological father. Brown, an Iraq war veteran and member of the Cherokee Nation, initially renounced his parental rights on the eve of his deployment overseas. He rescinded that decision when he learned that the birth mother, his former fiancée, had put their daughter up for adoption.
Because her father is a member of the Cherokee Nation, Veronica is covered by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Passed in 1978, ICWA was designed to address racially biased policies that unjustly targeted Native American families and culture.
State adoption laws would have assigned custody of Veronica to the Capobiancos, with whom she lived until age two. However, the South Carolina Supreme Court determined that the federal ICWA superseded state law, and awarded custody to Brown. The case eventually rose to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in April and issued its ruling Tuesday, reversing the South Carolina court. Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Anthony Alito, Jr., held that because Brown did not have custody of Veronica prior to the adoption, he could not use ICWA to challenge the adoption later.
TRC Commissioner Matthew Dunlap said the Supreme Court decision would not affect the Commission’s work.
“We have much to absorb about the ruling of the Supreme Court on this matter. It’s important to note that the adoption of Tribal children away from their communities has an affect on not only the health of those children, but on the organic whole of our many cultures – and we are only in the very early stages of understanding the full impact of those practices,” Dunlap said. “Our resolve is to discern what has gone wrong in the past, to help people heal from tragedy, and to move in a direction that does not repeat mistakes.”
ICWA was enacted after widespread recognition that Native families were being treated unjustly on the basis of racial bias from state welfare systems. This bias had many roots, including long-standing beliefs about assimilation and misinterpretation of traditional Indian family practices. For example, the prevalence of extended relatives in child care was misinterpreted as neglect.
Despite clinical findings to the contrary, biased practices persisted long after their use was officially denounced. Before ICWA was passed, it is estimated that between 25 and 35 percent of all Indian children were separated from their families, according to a 1976 study by the Association on American Indian Affairs. In enacting ICWA, Congress acknowledged “that there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children.”
Home to the nations of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet tribes, Maine has not been immune to the damage of flawed policy and practice within the state child welfare system. In Maine, Wabanaki children were removed from their homes and communities at a per-capita rate 19 times higher than that of non-Native children, according to Esther Attean and Jill Williams, who were involved in developing the Maine Wabanaki TRC.
TRC Commissioner gkisedtanamoogk said, “Many of the people who were separated from their tribes and families in Maine are still coping with the effects of that loss, as are their families and their entire communities. So many families were damaged and disrupted by discrimination.”
Helping to address that legacy, the TRC was created in 2012 to uncover the historical truth about Maine’s child welfare system, promote healing of those affected by it and offer recommendations for the future. In the coming months, the TRC is planning to hold events and listening sessions in Wabanaki and Maine communities.
For more information:
Call TRC Executive Director Heather Martin at (207) 664-0280