- Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians
- Terry Cross, Executive Director of National Indian Child Welfare Association
- John Echohawk, Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund
Jacqueline Pata - Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians
Good afternoon and good morning to you all. Thank you for joining us. My name is Jacqueline Pata, as Thom said I’m the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians. I’m a member of the Raven/Sockeye Clan of the Tlingit Tribe and a member of the Central Council of the Tlingit-Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska
Before I begin with our announcement today, I’d like to open with some context to our announcement.
Within the United States, there are 566 sovereign tribal nations, which are recognized as having an official nation-to-nation relationship with the United States federal government. There are many more tribes with relationships with state governments. To date, there are well over 5.2 million individuals who identify alone or in combination with another race as American Indian or Alaska Native.
The National Congress of American Indians has served as the unified voice advocating for the rights of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments and citizens since 1944.
As tribal nations we have a historic, political relationship with the United States as evidenced through numerous treaties, agreements, specific sections within the U.S. Constitution, as well as statutes which consider the unique needs and circumstances surrounding America’s first peoples. Additionally, Indian tribes have their own laws and governance structures which are inherent in nature, but also which the US has had a strong history of supporting and nurturing through legislation like the Indian Child Welfare Act, the Self-Determination Act, and more recently, Title 9 of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. As a result, the governments and citizens of our nations occupy a unique place within the United States, as nations operating within a nation. Also, tribes work daily with our counterparts in the federal, state, and local governments to ensure our laws are carried out in a manner that both furthers tribal self-governance, but is also grounded in strong working relationships established between tribal, federal and state governments to serve the best interests of our citizens of all our nations.
In essence, our citizens are both citizens of our tribal nations, and citizens of the United States. As such, individual Indians are afforded all of the same rights that every citizen within this union are afforded, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and equally as important and significant in this matter, the right to due process, as outlined in the United States’ Constitution.
Which brings me to our announcement.
It is in the context of the rights of Americans and Native Americans that I announce today, along with our colleagues at the Native American Rights Fund and the National Indian Child Welfare Association, our intention to pursue a lawsuit related to any violations of Baby Veronica’s civil rights in this case.
Late Wednesday of last week the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a controversial order to the state’s family court calling for an expedited transfer of custody to the South Carolina-based adoptive couple without a hearing of best interest for Veronica.
When it comes to adoption proceedings, every court in this country has a legal obligation to put the best interests of a child first – every time, no matter the race of the child. This did not happen here. The South Carolina Court’s order represents a perilous prospect for not only Veronica, but any child involved in a custody proceeding in this country.
In a rush to judgment, the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered Veronica to be removed from her biological father without any consideration for her best interests. The decision contributes to the long and sordid history of Native American children being removed from their families without any consideration of their best interests. The National Congress of American Indians refuses to stand by as the rights of this child are violated.
Every American should be shocked by this decision – and in fact many Americans were, including those in the legal community, regardless of their previous opinions or stance on the case. This decision was also counter to the expectations outlined in the U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments and decision to remand the case to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
We are talking about the rights of a nearly 4-year old child – during an extremely sensitive period in her life. Her rights to a determination of best interest hearing in the South Carolina court system in all steps leading to this decision were anticipated and were guaranteed by all parties and the laws of the United States – in fact in all previous proceedings in South Carolina Veronica’s best interest was accounted for as evidenced in two previous hearings going back as far as two years ago.
In those hearings, it was determined that the child’s father in fact was the best person for Veronica to reside with. And those findings were appropriate; he has raised her for the past 19 months providing a loving home while also connecting her with her Native heritage. She is also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. These circumstances should be evaluated in a venue that affords them their true value, such as a family court hearing to examine the best interests of the child – post the Supreme Court’s holding in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl.
We believe if her rights continue to be violated, this will represent the forced removal of a Native child from her Native family and community.
We are committed to fully examining these circumstances with all of our legal capabilities and will be calling on our allies in the civil rights and children’s rights communities to join us in standing for Veronica. Additionally, we have begun a process to notify the appropriate federal agencies of the process we have begun, including the Department of Justice.
I now turn today’s call over to Terry Cross of the National Indian Child Welfare Association for his statement. NICWA is a national voice for American Indian children and families, and the organization has been monitoring this case since Mr. Brown sought custody of his daughter.
Terry Cross – Executive Director, National Indian Child Welfare Association
Thank you Jackie, the National Indian Child Welfare Association also joins with NCAI and NARF to announce our intentions today to pursue legal actions and protect the rights of Veronica Brown as a child, as an American, and as an American Indian.
In a rush to judgment, the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered Veronica to be removed from her biological father without any consideration of her best interests. This is an alarming failure of the judicial system, and it represents a grave threat to the interests of all children in adoption proceedings, but most notably Native American children.
Moving forward we’re calling on all involved – the courts, the media, and the families – to proceed with extreme caution and care during this important time for Veronica.
Her rights are paramount and caution must be exercised for her rights to be upheld. This also could set an unsettling precedent for future children’s rights.
Veronica who is now almost four-years old, is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and more importantly she is also afforded the rights of every child involved in a custody transfer within the courts of the United States – this means she should also be afforded a hearing of best interest in any pending transfer of custody proceedings.
Veronica’s rights, like any other child’s rights in this situation, are the same rights that every child has access to and should not be superseded for any reason.
Two years ago, both the South Carolina Supreme Court and Family Courts held best interest hearings and determined that it was in Veronica’s best interest to be with her father and that he was fit parent. As a result the South Carolina Supreme Court transferred custody to Mr. Brown. The legal system worked then, but it is being ignored now. It is unconscionable that no best interest hearing has been held in conjunction with the latest transfer order. Every child deserves to have his or her best interests considered – that is a fundamental right, and one that should not be denied any child.
The previous ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court, ruled in favor of the father establishing that putting Veronica in Brown’s care was in best interest. No best interest has ever been established for a transfer to the adoptive couple during the entire time of the case.
“The family court found persuasive the testimony that Father was a good father who enjoyed a close relationship with his other daughter…” (p.22)
“We can only conclude from the evidence presented at trial that Father desires to be a parent to Baby Girl, and that he and his family have created a safe, loving, and appropriate home for her….” (p.23)
“Likewise, we cannot say that Baby Girl's best interests are not served by the grant of custody to Father, as Appellants have not presented evidence that Baby Girl would not be safe, loved, and cared for if raised by Father and his family.” (p.26)
And if the Court points to the fact that two provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act no longer applies, the court should consider their own words in the original decision;
‘South Carolina courts have a long history of determining custody disputes based on the "best interests of the child.”…This important history is not replaced by the ICWA's mandate.” (p.24)
To understand that all parties involved called for these rights to be upheld, you only need to look to the comments delivered to the U.S. Supreme Court in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl as heard by the Justices months ago.
As the official representative for the child in the U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments, Paul Clement the attorney for the Guardian Ad Litem, made it very clear in his statements that if remanded back to the South Carolina Court there was every expectation that a hearing of best interest for Veronica must be held in order to uphold her rights.
His statements read as follows,
“I'm here representing the guardian who represents the best interest of the child. From the child's perspective, the child really doesn't care whose fault it was when they were brought in one custodial situation or another. They just want a determination that focuses on at the relevant time, that time, what's in their best interest. And so in the same way that we think if you rule in our favor and you remand to the lower court that there has to be a best interest determination that takes into account the current situation,” (p.24)
There is even more information offered in the arguments made by Mr. Clement that point to the expectation that a best interest would be held, as well as in the Guardian’s Amicus to the U.S. Supreme Court. We will supply you those documents if you do not have them, as well as the audio clips of those oral arguments. (Click here to access the full transcript (p.24) and audio of this exchange between Clement and Justices.)
Our organizations are committed to supporting NARF as they look toward potential litigation to ensure Veronica’s rights will be protected.
The National Indian Child Welfare Association is concerned every time the rights of a child are violated, particularly when that child is a citizen of an Indian nation. We have long stood for Veronica and we will not stand idly by as her rights are overridden.
I now turn to John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, the nation’s pre-eminent nonprofit law firm dedicated to asserting and defending the rights of Indian tribes, organizations and individuals nationwide.
John Echohawk - Executive Director, Native American Rights Fund
The Native American Rights Fund –NARF – joins with the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Child Welfare Association today, and with many others inside and outside of Indian country, in support of Dusten Brown, his family and the Cherokee Nation.
As you know, the Supreme Court of South Carolina issued its order last Wednesday, and gave Dusten and the Cherokee Nation five (5) days to file their petitions for rehearing. Those petitions will be filed today.
When, as anticipated, the Supreme Court of South Carolina denies those petitions for rehearing, its order will become final and this case will be remanded to the State Family Court [quote] “for the prompt entry of an order approving and finalizing Adoptive Couple’s adoption of Baby Girl” [end quote]. As reflected in the order, the courts of the State of South Carolina can summarily terminate Dusten’s rights as a father and—without any hearing on what is in the best interests of this Indian child—and without any regard for due process of law to protect her civil rights—can remove Baby Veronica from her Indian father, her Indian family, and her Indian tribe with whom she has been living with for the past 18 months.
This injustice cannot stand! As it has since it was established in 1970—NARF will stand firm for justice.
As Executive Director of NARF, I have instructed my legal staff to work with local counsel in South Carolina and Oklahoma to determine our best legal recourse through the federal courts to protect the rights of Baby Veronica. In this case, we strongly believe that federal civil rights laws are being violated, that other applicable provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act are being ignored by the state courts, and that the principles underlying treaty and international law protecting the rights of indigenous peoples are being undermined.