What was once a little known civil battle between a biological father and an adoptive couple over the right to raise a little girl has escalated into a full blown legal escapade involving lawyers, P.R. firms, a Native American tribal nation, governors from two states, and now an official from the United Nations. It’s taken a world organization to chime in and bring the focus back to the heart of the case, the child Veronica Brown.
Veronica, who turns 4 on September 15th, has been at the heart of the legal efforts of her biological father, Dusten Brown, since 4 months after her birth. Brown has been fighting to raise his daughter since learning that her mother, who was estranged from Brown, placed the child through private adoption at birth. Though contesting the adoption since the child was 4 months old, and prior to legal finalization of the adoption, the right to raise his daughter has been fought by the hopeful adoptive couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco. In 2011, a S. Carolina Supreme Court awarded custody of Veronica to her biological father, citing provisions under the Indian Child Welfare Act – a law enacted to prevent the out-placement of Native American children to non-native parents in adoption. Brown has been raising his daughter since.
However, the Capobianco’s continue to assert their right to Veronica, legally challenging Brown’s right to raise his daughter. This challenge went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled, through exceptionally narrow interpretation, that ICWA didn’t apply and returned the case back to the S. Carolina courts for re-evaluation. Those courts summarily reversed their judgement, and without consideration of best interests for Veronica, awarded custody back to the Capabiancos.
Needless to say, Brown has resisted this ruling, citing his rights as a biological father (whom the courts found fit to raise his child), his rights as a citizen of Oklahoma (not S. Carolina, where the Capobiancos moved Veronica after her birth), and his rights as a member of the Cherokee Nation (both Brown and Veronica are Native American tribal members of the Cherokee Nation). Legal provisions state that Brown has the right to contest the various rulings through hearing, a process which is currently unfolding. However, in an unprecedented intervention of a state governor in a civil case, S. Carolina’s governor Nikki Haley has put pressure on the situation – claiming that Dusten Brown is breaking the law (by legally opposing a ruling) and issued a warrant and extradition order for his arrest. Publicity and pressure from Haley prompted Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin to also supersede court process by applying pressure to Brown and authorizing S. Carolina’s extradition request. The Capobiancos have taken up presence in Oklahoma with demands that they will not leave the state until they have possession of Veronica.
It has taken the Oklahoma Supreme Court to put a halt to the fevered pitch by issuing a stay on the extradition orders while it has time to review the details of the case.
It is in this environment, where the right of possessing a child is being legally demanded by a non-biological couple, that U.N. official James Anaya has stepped in to issue a statement.
“Veronica’s human rights as a child and as member of the Cherokee Nation, an indigenous people, should be fully and adequately considered in the ongoing judicial and administrative proceedings that will determine her future upbringing,” Anaya said in a statement from Geneva.
“Following the Supreme Court decision,” the U.N. statement continues, “a South Carolina state court awarded custody of Veronica to the non-Cherokee couple, but it did so without a determination of whether her transfer away from her Cherokee family would be in her best interests in light of her current situation and Cherokee heritage.”
“I urge the relevant authorities,” Anaya said, “as well as all parties involved in the custody dispute, to ensure the best interests of Veronica, fully taking into account her rights to maintain her cultural identity and to maintain relations with her indigenous family and people.”
The rights that Anaya references aren’t just feel-good ideas from some official injecting opinion into US civil affairs, they are in reference to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Both instruments that are endorsed and ratified by the United States in the world forum.
A quick reference of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples shows one article directly applicable to this case, emphasis added.
Article 7.2: Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.
When it takes a U.N. official to chime in and remind the courts that the subject at hand is not property, but rather a living, feeling, human girl, it’s a stark reflection of the US legal (and political) culture. Somewhere along the line in this case, the focus of humanity and basic human rights has been lost to power, privilege, and a system that propagates such entitlements. Ironically, it’s a reminder of the type of history that the U.S. would rather forget, particularly as it asserts its principles and ideals of human rights on the world stage.
For further reading, please explore the Veronica Fact Resource