Marcia Zug has published “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl: Two-and-a-Half-Ways to Destroy Indian Law” in Michigan Law Review’s First Impressions.
In December 2011, Judge Malphrus of the South Carolina family court ordered Matt and Melanie Capobianco to relinquish custody of Veronica, their two-year-old, adopted daughter, to her biological father, Dusten Brown. A federal statute known as the Indian Child Welfare Act (“ICWA”) mandated Veronica’s return. However, the court’s decision to return Veronica pursuant to this law incited national outrage and strident calls for the Act’s repeal. While this outrage was misplaced, it may nonetheless have influenced the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear the appeal. The case of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl is emotionally complicated, but it is not legally complex. Therefore, the Court’s interest is surprising and likely means that this case will determine more than the fate of a single child.
The court returned Veronica Capobianco to her biological father because the termination of his parental rights and the subsequent adoption attempt did not comply with the requirements of ICWA. South Carolina law would have permitted the involuntary termination of Brown’s parental rights, but ICWA supersedes state law and forbids such involuntary terminations. Consequently, because Brown never relinquished his rights, the family court held that Veronica was not eligible for adoption and that she must be returned to Brown. The South Carolina Supreme Court subsequently affirmed this decision. The court agreed that under the clear language of the Act, Brown qualified as a “parent” and that the termination of his parental rights must comply with ICWA.