Today, the DR. PHIL Show will tell the story of Matt and Melanie Capobianco, the non-native adoptive parents of 3-year-old Veronica (Cherokee), who was removed from her home in South Carolina at the age of 2 this past New Year’s Eve to live with her biological father, Dusten Brown, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a neighboring city of the Tahlequah-based Cherokee Nation.
The widely publicized and controversial custody case, which has been going on since 2009 when Veronica was four months old, has been heralded by some as a victory for the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), the Cherokee Nation, and for Veronica, who will remain with her family who have “a deeply embedded relationship” with their heritage, as the South Carolina Supreme Court ruling states.
But others have criticized the decision as destructive to the toddler and an injustice to the adoptive parents.
In a taped interview, the Capobiancos sat down with TV talk-show host Dr. Phil McGraw to share their anger and frustrations at losing Veronica and at the ICWA of 1978, which gives placement preference of adopted American Indian children first to family members, second to members of the same tribe and third to members of another tribe.
“The Child Welfare Act is destroying families,” Matt told Dr. Phil. “Veronica’s our daughter.” The couple was present in the delivery room for Veronica’s birth, and Matt cut the umbilical cord. “I just can’t put it into words how incredible it felt to have a little girl.”
Veronica’s birth mother, Christina Maldonado, signed the adoption papers for the Capobiancos to take Veronica without Brown’s consent. When Brown learned of the adoption, he immediately began pursuing custody of his daughter.
In a preview clip posted to the DR. PHIL Show website, Dr. Phil questioned Chrissi Nimmo, assistant attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, why the ICWA has the power to overrule a mother’s decision. “Does this mother need the permission of the tribe to do what she wants with the child if it’s not to the child’s detriment?”
Nimmo explained “…one of the concepts of the law is that the tribe has an interest in protecting its children.”
The ICWA was designed to preserve the relationship a child has with its relatives and its tribe, Craig Dorsay, a Portland, Oregon-based attorney who has worked on thousands of ICWA-related cases, explained to Indian Country Today Media Network. “In the South Carolina case, the tribe is painted as the villain,” Dorsay said. “But you have to remember the tribe is interested in the health and welfare of the child.”
Although non-native adoptive families can promise to expose children to ceremonies and culture, there is no substitute for immersion. “In the Indian community, grandparents, aunts and uncles, they all share equal responsibility for the child, and the child’s life is enriched by this,” Dorsay said.
Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, agrees that the ruling ensures Baby Veronica grows up surrounded by her culture and people and the rights and responsibilities that come with it. “I can’t say enough about the importance of a child’s rights throughout their lives,” Cross said. “These are things as simple as voting in tribal elections, running for office, taking advantage of tribal scholarships and benefits, participating in customary and ceremony rights, plus their relationships with extended families. It’s about a notion of a sense of belonging. Indian children are as tied to their extended families as they are to their parents. There’s a rich network of culture there, and that’s what we rely on for wellbeing.”
But tonight’s episode of the DR. PHIL Show paints the decision to remove Baby Veronica from the home of her adoptive parents as a heart-breaking “nightmare,” severing a young girl’s ties with the only caretakers she has ever known.
While Nimmo defends the purpose of the ICWA, she is repeatedly countered by Troy Dunn, host of the TV show The Locator, a non-native brother to an adopted American Indian man, and the person who pitched Dr. Phil to feature the story of Baby Veronica on the DR. PHIL Show.
While Nimmo is explaining the purpose of the ICWA, Dunn interrupts and alleges Veronica’s background is barely Indian.
“Have you told Dr. Phil how much of this child’s blood is actually Indian? Because I think we’re leading people to believe this is an Indian thing,” Dunn said.
“She is an Indian baby,” Nimmo replied.
“This child is more Hispanic than Indian, more white than Indian, more Asian almost than Indian,” Dunn charges. “There is like a drop of Indian blood in this child….” he said. “…[I]t’s a massive warning to any parent in America right now who’s considering adopting a child, because if there’s a drop of Indian blood in this child, this is a possibility, this event could happen to somebody else,” Dunn said. “Somebody from the tribe—not a birth parent—a tribal member can step up a make a claim, which is what drives some families into hiding.”
Nimmo clarified that the law applies to tribal citizens, not to native heritage. “It’s not about a drop of blood; this father is a citizen of the government. It’s not just if you have Indian in your background.”
The debate over the ICWA continued on the DR. PHIL Show with outside opinions in support and opposition to the act.
Lastly, Dr. Phil issues his opinion:
“To tear this child aware from y’all in an abrupt fashion like that, there’s no question that it was traumatic for her,” he told the Capobiancos. “There will be real issues for this child going forward. I will tell you, however, that research suggests long term that children can recover from this; children are resilient. She can have a happy and adjusted life in a new environment if in fact that environment is loving, nurturing and productive for her.”
Dr. Phil did suggest the couple should have permission to see Veronica. “The mature thing to do would be for her to have visitation; it puts the baby’s best interest above everyone else’s,” Dr. Phil said.
The Capobiancos, whose request for a rehearing in the custody case of Baby Veronica in South Carolina Supreme Court was denied on August 23, appealed on October 1 for the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. They are still awaiting a response.
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