Oklahoma court ruling lets Cherokee girl live with adoptive parents

Reuters

By Heide Brandes

OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma (Reuters) - The Oklahoma Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for a 4-year-old Cherokee girl known as "Baby Veronica" to be transferred from the custody of her Oklahoma biological father to a South Carolina couple who adopted her.

The court lifted a stay it had imposed on August 30 that had kept Veronica in Oklahoma where she has lived for the past two years while her biological father, Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation, fought the adoption.

The ruling removes a legal roadblock to an earlier court order in August that she be sent back to South Carolina. But lawyers for the Cherokee Nation said Monday the court's ruling does not override a Cherokee Nation District Court order that allows Veronica to remain on tribal trust land, where she and Brown have been living since July.

Todd Hembree, attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, said a state order has to be upheld by the tribal court before he will enforce it.

"We are a sovereign nation with a valid and historic court system," Hembree said in a statement. "As Attorney General, I will require that our court system be honored and respected."

The pair were moved off Brown's property and onto the tribe's land to protect them from media and other public exposure at Brown's home, which is not on tribal lands, said tribe spokeswoman Amanda Clinton.

The case has highlighted overlapping parental claims in two states - as well as the clash between a Native American culture seeking to protect children from being adopted outside their tribes and U.S. legal safeguards for adoptive parents.

Attorneys for both sides are not allowed to talk to the media. Documents have been sealed, preventing the release of further details.

'TRAUMATIC SITUATION'

The adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco of South Carolina, have been in Oklahoma for the past month and have been allowed to visit Veronica, who lived with them for the first two years of her life, family spokeswoman Jessica Munday said.

The August 30 stay blocked an order by a county district court in Oklahoma that Brown turn over Veronica to the Capobiancos in compliance with her adoption, a victory for her biological father until the court lifted the stay Monday.

"Matt and Melanie cannot wait to bring Veronica home and begin the healing process as a reunited family," Munday said in a statement.

The statement did not acknowledge that the adoption case is not over but is still being appealed - and could reach the U.S. Supreme Court again if Brown continues to pursue it.

Munday called on Brown to return Veronica "peacefully and voluntarily" and avoid placing her in "a dangerous and traumatic situation."

The ruling does not affect an extradition order Brown currently faces on charges of custodial interference in South Carolina after refusing to hand over Veronica earlier this summer, after the Capobiancos' adoption of her was finalized.

He has a hearing on that extradition order set for October 3.

Veronica's birth mother, who is not Native American, arranged the adoption with the Capobiancos before the girl was born. Brown has argued he did not know the mother would give her up for adoption when he signed away his parental rights.

Brown, who was not married to the birth mother, argued that the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 allowed him to have Veronica, who is 3/256th Cherokee. A South Carolina family court agreed with him and he took custody of her in 2011.

But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling and decided the act did not apply. Her adoption by the Capobiancos was finalized in July, but Brown refused to turn her over.

(Additional reporting by Harriet McCloud in Charleston, South Carolina; Writing by Karen Brooks; Editing by Eric Walsh)

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