Editor’s Note: The Baby Veronica Case, recently argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, is one of the most important Indian legal battles of the last generation. It is the story of Dusten Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation, who has invoked the Indian Child Welfare Act to prevent Christina Maldonado, the non-Indian mother of his baby daughter, Veronica, from putting their child up for adoption by Matt and Melanie Capobianco of South Carolina.
That bare outline does not begin to describe the convoluted dimensions of the case formally known as Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. Its drama includes an unplanned pregnancy, a broken engagement, charges of bad faith, an adoption agency that did not comply with federal Indian law, a couple who fought to adopt a child who was never legally eligible, and even the intervention of the Cherokee Nation.
Last week, as part of a series devoted to the case, we described how Maldonado tried to arrange Veronica’s adoption by the Capobiancos, who paid her $10,000 and other expenses for her efforts. In this third and concluding installment, based largely on interviews with Brown and his team, a South Carolina court rules in favor of Brown as a media circus that would become as much a part of the case as the principals themselves begins to ominously emerge.
In 2010, after Brown had been served notice of termination and adoption, his original lawyer, Lesley Sasser, asked a Charleston, South Carolina–based family court attorney named Shannon Jones to join Brown’s legal team. Although Jones is an expert in interstate custody disputes under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act, she did not expect to become involved in an adoption struggle over an Indian child from Oklahoma.
“Lesley came to my office one day and said, ‘I’ve got this case that’s coming up for trial, and it could be kind of complex,’ ” said Jones, laughing at the understatement. “She said it involved the Indian Child Welfare Act. Honestly, at first I didn’t even know what it was. I’d never heard of it.”
Jones’s learning curve was steep and rapid. Early on, she realized that the Indian Child Welfare Act would be a brick wall for the Capobiancos in the contested adoption of Baby Veronica, whom the courts considered an Indian child. By this time, too, it was clear that the Capobiancos, the preadoptive parents, were prepared to pursue termination of Brown’s parental rights to maintain custody of the little girl.
But Brown, equally dead set on getting his daughter back, refused to back down. From the beginning, he had been marginalized and pushed out of his child’s life, and he was not interested in pursuing a settlement, he said.
“He never, ever wavered in his commitment to this case,” said Jones. “Anything short of full custody was not an option. I asked him at one point if he wanted to settle [with the Capobiancos] and maybe go for visitation, and he looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘No.’ And that was that. End of discussion.”
In June 2010, the state of Oklahoma declined jurisdiction, declaring South Carolina as Veronica’s home state. By the time Brown returned from Iraq that December, his daughter was already 15 months old and the case was beginning to gain momentum in the courts.
In initial proceedings in Charleston, Family Court Judge for the Ninth Judicial Circuit Paul Garfinkel ruled in Brown’s favor in July 2011. He found that although the terms of the Indian Child Welfare Act had not been followed in the case, they did indeed apply.
But the Capobiancos, who had been working with Maldonado virtually since she learned she was pregnant, had spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to adopt Veronica, and they were too invested in the situation to let go. So they took their fight to the next legal level.
Judge Deborah Malphrus, who heard arguments in South Carolina’s Ninth Judicial Circuit Court, issued a verbal courtroom ruling in favor of Brown on November 25, 2011. Soon, according to multiple sources in South Carolina, she was “inappropriately contacted” by numerous parties who asked her outright to change her written ruling in favor of the Capobiancos. Far from listening to their requests, Malphrus subsequently issued a 25-page ruling that reiterated the family court findings and transferred custody to Brown.
After a last-ditch attempt by the Capobiancos to stay the transfer was denied, Brown and his parents went to South Carolina in late December 2011 to bring Veronica back to Oklahoma. But rather than relinquish custody of Veronica privately at a local park, as had been the original plan, the Capobiancos took their case public via their newly hired public relations firm, Trio Solutions. What should have been a peaceful, happy transition for the child turned dangerous and bitter in the ensuing chaos surrounding the handoff.
Shannon Jones knew trouble was coming. On New Year’s Eve morning 2011, she woke early to prepare for Veronica’s transfer to Brown. She and her client had already given the Capobiancos an extra day to spend with the girl, and she was looking forward to concluding the case and spending New Year’s Eve with her young family. But the plan collapsed as she drove to the park at which all parties had agreed to meet for the handoff.
“I get this call from Jo Prowell, the guardian ad litem, who had no business being at that transfer,” said Jones, “and she says, ‘I think we need to have the exchange downtown at the Omni hotel,’ and I knew right then something wasn’t right, but I trusted that [the Capobiancos and their team] would keep it low key.”
Minutes later, Jones received a call from her associate, Wyatt Wimberly, who had already arrived at the hotel.
“It’s a madhouse down here,” Wimberly told her. “They’ve brought camera crews with them, and there are reporters everywhere.”
Jones called for a police escort and told Brown and his parents to stay put at her office. When Jones arrived at the hotel, the Capobiancos’ attorney, Raymond Godwin, was already being interviewed on camera by local news outlets, which were waiting to capitalize on the handoff. It was immediately clear that there was a coordinated effort to make Veronica’s transfer a media event.
Wimberly asked the hotel’s security team to move the media crews and reporters outside as tourists, spectators and protestors with signs started to gather. As the crowd began to realize what was happening, things turned ugly. People began harassing and heckling Jones with insults and name-calling.
“You could feel the animosity in the air,” Jones recalled. “Ray Godwin walked up to me in front of everyone and said, ‘I’m not giving you the child. The court order says I’m to give the child to the father.’ I told him no way, not in front of the cameras. We had discussed at great length how this should happen and this was absolutely not a safe environment for the transfer of a young child—anything could have happened. It was a circus, and I was shocked that they would insist that we handle this in public just so they could get a photo op.”
Jones then told Godwin that the transfer would take place at her office with no media present. Meanwhile, Brown was anxiously waiting at Jones’s office to see his daughter face-to-face for the first time since she was born. Up until that day, he was only allowed to see photos of her.
“It was a madhouse,” said Brown. “We had discussed a ‘neutral’ location, but somehow I knew the adoptive parents weren’t going to play ball. My parents and I were upstairs in Shannon’s second-story office, and we looked out the window [and] here they come down the sidewalk with my daughter and a mob of people, there were camera crews, people taking pictures with their cell phones, some were even carrying signs and there was shouting and yelling. I was pretty upset, because Veronica was forced to be in the middle of all that.”
But Brown, an Iraq War veteran, had been trained to maintain his composure in difficult situations. So he made a decision on the spot.
“We waited them out,” he said. “After Veronica was brought upstairs, we spoke to the adoptive couple and said our good-byes. But I was not going to give them a chance to exploit her for the cameras. No photographers, no reporters, no media, no nothing.”
Despite the riotous, staged nature of the handoff, relations between Brown and the Capobiancos were amiable, at least initially. Brown, sensitive to the adoptive couple’s obvious grief, said he gave them his phone number and told them they could call Veronica to stay in contact with her. He asked only that they wait a few weeks for things to settle down at her new home in Oklahoma. After an emotional farewell, the Capobiancos left as Brown and his daughter sat in Jones’s office for several hours, coloring, looking outside at the birds, and waiting for the public and the media to leave. From the beginning, Veronica immediately bonded with her father.
“It was instantaneous,” said Jones. “That little girl climbed right in her father’s lap and never cried a tear. There was never an uncomfortable moment between the two of them.”
As the last stragglers on the street drifted away, Wimberly drove the Browns’ vehicle around to the back of the office building so that their departure could be made quietly and without incident. But as they exited the door, a lone television camera crew spotted them and came running toward the Browns’ vehicle.
“Shannon Jones is tiny,” says Brown, smiling, “but she got right between the cameras and us and told them to go away. She’s tough.”
With the chaos of the transfer finally behind him, Brown and his parents put the car in drive and didn’t look back.
“We drove 22 hours straight without stopping from South Carolina,” says Brown. “We just wanted to get back home to Oklahoma.”
As soon as the Browns pulled into the driveway, however, things began to sour between the two families. With their public relations machine already in full swing, the Capobiancos made an appearance on CNN. It was the first of many media appearances and social networking schemes to gather support for the coming legal storm that would engulf everything in its path.