By Laura Briggs
The “Baby Veronica” case (Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl) currently before the Supreme Court is many things—a case that could undermine a great deal of federal Indian law by attacking the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA); a story about the stupid, mean things a couple will do to each other when they break up; and a sad story about a little kid who, at four, spent the first two years of her life with would-be adoptive parents and the next two living with her bio-father, his wife and other children. It’s also a story about the conservative right’s uses of marriage and its adoption crusade. What it’s not is a case that feminists have been on the right side of.
First, the facts, which have been widely misreported. In December 2008, Dusten Brown and Christina Maldonado were engaged; in January 2009, she became pregnant. She lived in his hometown, Bartlesville, OK, near his parents, but as he was active duty military, he lived four hours away at Fort Sill. On learning of her pregnancy, he began to press her to marry; she refused, and in May, they broke up. In an effort to get her to reconsider, he said, he refused to support her and said he wouldn’t pay child support, either. She told him he would have to relinquish his parental rights to her. Meanwhile, without his knowledge, she contacted the Nightlife Christian Adoption Agency (yes, you have heard of them—George Bush publically thanked them for pioneering “snowflake adoptions” of cryopreserved embryos, which they call “pre-born children”). With Nightlife’s assistance, Maldonado selected a couple in South Carolina to adopt her child, a state (not incidentally) that has laws very unfavorable to birth fathers—in order to have standing in an adoption case, fathers must have lived with the birth mother for at least six months prior to the birth of the child, and to have provided financial support, neither of which Brown had done.
There was, however, a potential complication, as Maldonado told Nightlife: Brown was Cherokee, which might have made the venue for any adoption Cherokee tribal court in Oklahoma, not South Carolina. Nightlife contacted the Cherokee Nation, but the agency misspelled Brown’s name and gave a wrong birth date for him. As a result, the Nation could not verify that Brown was Cherokee or that the baby was eligible for enrollment, and did not block the removal of the case to South Carolina. Baby Veronica was born in September with the would-be adoptive parents—the Capobiancos—present, but Maldonado told the hospital to deny she was there if Brown called. Four months later, less than two weeks before Brown was to be deployed to Iraq, the Capobiancos’ lawyer sent a process server with relinquishment papers. Thinking he was relinquishing to Maldonado during his deployment, Brown signed a form entitled “Acceptance of Service” but immediately asked for the paper back, saying he wanted to talk to an attorney. The process server threatened him with criminal prosecution if he touched the paper. Brown consulted an army attorney, and filed a stay of the adoption in South Carolina, establishing paternity, seeking custody (offering to place the baby with his parents until he returned from Iraq), and promised to support Veronica. The Cherokee Nation also intervened, identifying the father as a registered member and saying that ICWA applied and had not been followed. Adoption proceedings were halted, although the baby stayed with the Maldonados. When Brown returned from Iraq in 2011, two South Carolina courts found that ICWA applied, that Brown had not consented to the termination of his parental rights and there never should have been an adoption case, and awarded custody of two-year old Veronica to Brown.
At that point, the Capobiancos and Nightlife got considerable attention from the Evangelical Christian right, and “Save Baby Veronica” websites and petitions popped up all over. Enter Paul Clement, patron saint of conservative causes at the Supreme Court--defender of the Defense of Marriage Act, leading the charge against Obama’s expansion of health care coverage, staunch defender of Arizona’s immigration law, and the mouthpiece of the Bush administration in torture cases. Clement also currently represents a non-Indian gaming client who wants to put a casino in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and is arguing that the state law on Indian gaming amounts to an illegal racial set-aside. This may be the real key to the Baby Veronica case—if conservatives are successful in gutting ICWA, much Indian law will also fall. Not for the first time in U.S. history, the successful claim by Native people on a resource—the lucrative gaming industry—is under full-scale legal assault.
Baby Veronica Case Goes to the Supreme Court
Clement successfully brought the Baby Veronica case to the Supreme Court, making a series of interrelated arguments. First, his brief insists that Brown is not legally or meaningfully a father because he and Maldonado were not married. For me, as a lesbian mother who raised a child in Arizona where I could not adopt her because her other mother and I were not married, this argument terrifies me. Second, he makes an old (and racist) blood quantum argument, saying that the child is “really” Hispanic, because she doesn’t have a sufficient fraction of “Indian blood” to count—a point on which the Cherokee nation begs to differ. Finally, he says, ICWA is a law that gives unfair racial preferences to Native people in adoption and custody cases. In this, he is following Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court Justice he clerked for. Scalia, commenting on Baby Veronica, said that the most wrenching case he ever decided was Holyfield, where he had to “turn [a] child over to the tribal council,” removing it from a “wealthy rancher” in an ICWA case. This is a strange description of Holyfield. What the Court actually did in Holyfield was determine that the jurisdiction for the adoption would be tribal court, much as it might find that one state rather than another was the proper place to hear an adoption or custody case. In Holyfield, the “wealthy rancher’s” family in fact adopted the children (there were twins); the tribal court found it was in the children’s best interest. This is a crucial point: ICWA does not determine who gets a child. It determines jurisdiction--who gets to decide who gets a child.
Jurisdiction matters a lot in adoption. State laws vary widely, and many Sunbelt states (plus Utah), are known as “easy adoption” states where Christian adoption agencies, in particular, often relocate pregnant women because they, and the birth fathers, have few rights there. ICWA is the only federal law that offers birthparents rights in adoption cases, so that enrolled members of Native Nations, at least, have uniform and enforceable rights. The jurisdiction is always tribal court, and the law is consistent.
As I have argued elsewhere, ICWA does not provide special “racial entitlements”; it treats (some) American Indians as having a distinct political status conferred by treaty rights. In fact, in 1974, the Supreme Court ruled on this very point. In Morton v. Mancari, the court held that Native people could be treated differently from non-Native people, not because they belonged to a distinct racial group, but because tribal nations are “quasi-political entities” whose status is determined by federal treaty. Being the parent of a child eligible for tribal enrollment is not a “race.” People otherwise identifiable as Native may have children that are not ICWA-eligible because they belong to a non-recognized or terminated tribe (of which there are about 200 in the United States), because of arcane blood quantum requirements, or because they are indigenous but from Latin America, Canada, or Hawaii. Two, all ICWA does is give birth parents rights that many think they should have regardless, and often do. If the Baby Veronica case had been in Massachusetts, for example, Dusten Brown would be treated as a legal parent, and his daughter could not be adopted unless he either relinquished his parental rights or was shown to be unfit—the same standard as ICWA.
“Where is the outrage from women’s groups over this issue?”
“Where is the outrage from women’s groups over this issue?” asks a recent blog post on the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare’s website, wondering why feminists are not angry about an unmarried father demanding a say in the placement of a child for adoption. I’d ask the same question, but with opposite intent. So far, the only feminist voices in this debate have been Joan Heifetz Hollinger and Elizabeth Bartholet, who support Paul Clement and Nightlife Christian Adoption Agency in their brief in the case, which argues for a standard some states have invented, that ICWA should only apply when it disrupts an “existing Indian family,” a standard that has been interpreted very narrowly—a married heterosexual couple living on a reservation. Why feminists would think that is a good idea, when 48% of children are born to single mothers, is beyond me.
Why Feminists Should Care
Here’s why feminists should care about this: it’s a racist case designed to gut federal Indian law. It’s a “states rights” case, which should haunt anyone who thinks slavery was a bad thing. It involves a high-profile cast of right-wing actors, from an evangelical Christian adoption agency to lawyer Paul Clement. Making adoption easy and giving birth parents and unwed parents few rights has been a conservative anti-abortion agenda for a long time. It’s time feminists noticed, and opposed it. When unmarried fathers are not really parents, unmarried mothers are vulnerable too, as when Newt Gingrich threatened to take the children of welfare mothers and put them in orphanages. If this case is successful, it would make it much easier for poor people to lose children, including against their will, which mostly affects mothers.
Laura Briggs is chair and professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies and author most recently of Somebody's Children: The Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption.