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Supreme Court Decides Indian Child Welfare Act Case

In Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, --- S.Ct. ----, 2013 WL 3184627 (U.S. 2013), the baby girl in question (Baby Girl) was born in Oklahoma to unwed parents, including a Cherokee father (Father) and non-Indian mother (Mother). After the couple broke up during the pregnancy, Father, in response to an inquiry from Mother, text-messaged Mother that he would rather give up parental rights than pay child support. Mother decided to terminate her parental rights and give the baby up for adoption.

The adoptive parents (Adoptive Parents), residents of South Carolina, were present when Baby Girl was born September 15, 2009, and took her home with them shortly after receiving permission from Oklahoma pursuant to the Interstate Compact on Placement of Children. Adoptive Parents began adoption proceedings in South Carolina three days after Baby Girl was born but Father did not receive notice until nearly four months later, in January 2010. when a process server presented him with an "Acceptance of Service and Answer," which purported to waive the 30-day waiting period, waive notice of hearing and waive any objection to the adoption. Father, a soldier about to depart for Iraq, signed but then immediately changed his mind and sought a stay of adoption under the Servicemember's Civil Relief Act.

The Cherokee Nation, which had previously indicated that Father was not a citizen, later determined that he was. The South Carolina adoption petition was amended accordingly in March 2010. After establishing paternity through DNA testing, Father challenged the adoption. Adoptive parents argued that, under South Carolina law, there was no need for Father's consent to the adoption because Father had neither lived with Mother or Baby Girl for the six months preceding the adoption nor paid child support. The South Carolina family court judge ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) applied and mandated that Baby Girl be turned over to father. After various stay motions were denied, Father returned to Oklahoma with Baby Girl December 31, 2011. The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed.

On June 25, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision reversed. The state court had relied in part on Section 1912(f) of the codified ICWA, which bars termination of parental rights to an Indian child unless the court finds that "the continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child." Emphasizing the word "continued," the Court held that "§ 1912(f) does not apply where the Indian parent never had custody of the Indian child" (Emphasis in original).

The Court also disagreed with the South Carolina court's conclusion that termination of Father's rights was barred by Section 1912(d), which requires a showing that efforts have been made "to prevent the breakup of the Indian family," holding Section 1912(d) inapplicable in Father's case: "But when an Indian parent abandons an Indian child prior to birth and that child has never been in the Indian parent's legal or physical custody, there is no relationship that would be discontinued - and no effective entity that would be ended - by the termination of the Indian parent's rights." (Internal quotes and ellipses omitted).

Finally, the Court held that Section 1915(a), which mandates preference "in any adoptive placement" for a member of the child's extended family, other members of the child's tribe or other Indian families, in that order, did not apply in the case of Baby Girl: "This is because there simply is no 'preference' to apply if no alternative party that is eligible to be preferred under § 1915(a) has come forward."

In an important concurrence, Justice Breyer explicitly left open whether ICWA sections 1915(a), (b) and (f) might apply under different circumstances, e.g., where the Indian father (1) has visitation rights, (2) has paid child support, (3) was deceived about the existence of a child, or (4) was prevented from supporting his child.

In a dissent joined by three other members of the Court, Justice Sotomayor accused the majority of distorting the meaning of the term "continued" to defeat the very purposes for which Congress had enacted the ICWA:

The majority's hollow literalism distorts the statute and ignores Congress' purpose in order to rectify a perceived wrong that, while heartbreaking at the time, was a correct application of federal law and that in any case cannot be undone. Baby Girl has now resided with her father for 18 months. However difficult it must have been for her to leave Adoptive Couple's home when she was just over 2 years old, it will be equally devastating now if, at the age of 3 1/2, she is again removed from her home and sent to live halfway across the country. Such a fate is not foreordained, of course. But it can be said with certainty that the anguish this case has caused will only be compounded by today's decision.

According to the dissent, "continued" custody, consistent with congressional intent, means prospective custody and does not preclude the application of ICWA's protections to a non-custodial Indian parent, including (1) the requirement that a proceeding be transferred to tribal court upon the Indian parent's request, in the absence of good cause to the contrary, as required by Section 1911(b), (2) the requirement that any consent to adoption be in writing and executed before a judge, per Section 1913(a), (3) the requirement of Section 1912(a) that an Indian parent and the child's tribe receive notice, and (4) the requirement of Section 1912(b) that the Indian parent be provided with legal counsel.

The dissent also sends a message to the state court, which will now consider the case on remand, laying out a scenario that could result in Father having no parental rights but having a relationship with his own daughter through relatives:

[T]he majority does not and cannot foreclose the possibility that on remand, Baby Girl's paternal grandparents or other members of the Cherokee Nation may formally petition for adoption of Baby Girl. If these parties do so, and if on remand Birth Father's parental rights are terminated so that an adoption becomes possible, they will then be entitled to consideration under the order of preference established in § 1915. The majority cannot rule prospectively that § 1915 would not apply to an adoption petition that has not yet been filed. Indeed, the statute applies "[i]n any adoptive placement of an Indian child under State law," 25 U.S.C. § 1915(a) (emphasis added), and contains no temporal qualifications. It would indeed be an odd result for this Court, in the name of the child's best interests, cf. ante, at ----, to purport to exclude from the proceedings possible custodians for Baby Girl, such as her paternal grand-parents, who may have well-established relationships with her.

In an odd concurring opinion, Justice Thomas blesses the majority for not reaching more fundamental constitutional questions but then embarks on an originalist reimagining of federal Indian law pursuant to which (1) Congress had no authority to enact the ICWA, (2) the doctrine of congressional plenary power is error, (3) congressional power is strictly limited to commercial trade with Indian tribes located beyond state borders, and (4) congressional power does not extend to citizens of tribes. The idea behind concurrences of this nature is to plant seeds that the author hopes will germinate into a majority of the court at some future date.

Copyright © 2021 Godfrey & Kahn S.C.National Law Review, Volume III, Number 197
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About this Author

Brian Pierson Tribal Lawyer Godfrey Kahn Law Firm
Shareholder

Brian Pierson leads Godfrey & Kahn's Indian Nations Law Team. Brian clerked for federal district judge Myron L. Gordon before entering private practice. Brian has more than 20 years experience representing Indian tribes, beginning with his successful representation of Chippewa Indians in federal court litigation to prevent racially-motivated interference with treaty-reserved, off-reservation fishing rights.

As leader of the firm's Indian Nations team, Brian's primary objective is to draw on the knowledge and experience of G&K's attorneys to assist tribes in formulating and...

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