Next week, South Carolina Judge Marsh Robertson has a hearing scheduled for the finalization of the adoption of Oklahoma-born infant, Merry Rejoice Bixler, better known as “Baby Deseray,” in Greenville County family court. The hearing, on Monday, October 28, comes a little over a month after Oklahoma County Judge Allen Welch granted custody of the girl to the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma and ordered her return to that state.
Four months after her removal, Mike Nomura, the Oklahoma administrator for the Interstate Custody for the Placement of Children (ICPC) applications, approved the paperwork for the child's adoptive parents, Bobby and Diane Bixler, of Irmo, South Carolina. The Bixlers are represented by Raymond Godwin, attorney for Nightlight Christian Adoptions of Greenville, South Carolina, and by Nomura's friend and colleague, Tulsa-based attorney Paul Swain in Oklahoma. (All of them declined to comment on this story.)
Oklahoma is one of only three states that outsource their ICPC applications to private contractors; in the other 47, all interstate adoptions are handled by the states' departments of human services. Sources in the adoption industry say that state-controlled ICPC approvals reduce cronyism and corruption within the adoption industry and “de-incentive-ize” the financial benefit for private practitioners.
Though Nomura has been in the adoption industry for over 30 years, he graduated from law school in 2012 and has been a licensed attorney for only a year. Additionally, because he is also now a practicing adoption attorney, he can approve his own ICPC applications.
“There are several very serious conflicts of interests in this situation,” said an Oklahoma attorney who declined to be identified because of ongoing professional dealings with Nomura. “But there is no question that he has now become a one-stop shop for all of his own adoption cases, as well as his business dealings with his friends. Also, he is now 'incentive-ized,' if you will, to proceed with these interstate adoptions because he can handle the whole thing on his own—and no one is watching the henhouse.”
In the Baby Deseray case, Indian Country Today Media Network has learned that Nomura is close friends with Swain, who is on the board of directors for Nomura's Tulsa-based private adoption agency, Heritage Family Services. Nomura has been the state’s Department of Human Services compact administrator for ICPC applications since 2008.
When contacted by ICTMN regarding the apparent conflict of interest in approving that ex post facto ICPC application for his friend and colleague, Nomura declined to respond. When asked about his decision to grant the application in spite of the fact that he knew both the birth father and the Absentee Shawnees were objecting to the baby's removal, and that there was a court order calling for her return to Oklahoma, Nomura pointed to case law, Cherokee Nation v. Nomura, which he claimed gives him the authority to grant retroactive applications if it is in the child's “best interest.”
Citing Nomura’s relative lack of courtroom and legal experience, however, adoption experts across the country have scoffed at what they characterize as his “rather fluid” analysis of a court case in which he was the defendant. “[Cherokee v. Nomura] does not apply in this case,” said an Oklahoma City-based ICWA expert who declined to be identified because the case involves a juvenile.
“There's no way he was able to make an informed best interest determination when the kid has been gone for five months and the judge, the birth father and the tribe were very clearly demanding her return before he granted approval. And he's scrambling behind them with a broom trying to make it appear tidy and legal. It's not.”
When asked who he reports to, Nomura forwarded to ICTMN the contact information for Linda Foster, a Tulsa-based Adoption Field Manager for Region 4 of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, saying she was his supervisor. Foster declined to comment for this story, as did her immediate supervisor, Ed Lake, Director for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
Bonnie Clift, assistant general counsel for the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and section chief for child welfare, said she had "no idea" who was supervising Nomura. Additionally, she said she was unaware of the case of Baby Deseray and its potential impact on the Absentee Shawnee.
When ICTMN first reported Deseray's removal by the Bixlers in August, Nomura signaled his displeasure with both Raymond Godwin, the Bixler's South Carolina adoption attorney, and Tulsa attorney Yeksavich because he said that no paperwork had been filed with his office. At the time, Nomura told ICTMN he was “hypothetically, off the record” aware of the situation with Baby Deseray and her removal from the state, but declined to comment further.
According to ICWA experts, the secretive nature of the adoption industry allows many standards and practices to go unregulated and unmonitored, often in violation of state and federal child trafficking and adoption laws. Adoption reformers say that it is the lack of transparency promulgated by “juvenile confidentiality” and laws specifically designed to inhibit and terminate parental rights that have led to numerous custodial train wrecks.
For example, in the recent Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, commonly referred to as the Baby Veronica case, it was South Carolina's statute requiring prenatal financial support that was used as a cudgel to terminate Dusten Brown's parental rights. Arguing for the plaintiffs, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, adoption attorney Raymond Godwin cited a South Carolina statute that Brown's rights should be terminated because he had not met the strict payment requirements set forth in South Carolina Code (§ 63-9-310).
From the outset, attorneys and spokespeople for the Capobiancos maintained that Dusten Brown did nothing to support Veronica's biological mother, Christy Maldonado, a charge he and his family have always fiercely denied.
There are documented cases in South Carolina in which the birth mother was, in fact, instructed to reject help from the birth father in order to ensure compliance with that statute. In Reeves vs. Jane Roe and John Roe (2009), the plaintiff, Craig Reeves, and the unnamed birth mother both testified in court that she had been instructed by Godwin neither to have any contact, nor to accept any money from Reeves.
Quoting Reeve’s testimony from the trial transcript: “She really wouldn’t take anything from me. She advised me that Mr. Godwin at the adoption agency told her that she should not take anything from me or should even be speaking to me.”
During testimony in family court, the birth mother corroborated Reeves' testimony.
Q. Isn’t it true that – or is it true that there were time that you were offered money by [the Petitioner] after Ray Godwin [adoption agency attorney] talked to you about not taking money that you turned down money from [Craig Reeves]?
A. Yes, I did turn down money from [Reeves]. I’m not sure when it was. It was one time that he offered me $100.
A. And I didn’t accept if from him because [Nightlight and Godwin] told me not to.
Initially, the lower courts in South Carolina vacated that adoption and granted Reeves custody of his child, which he maintained for 14 months. The State Supreme Court reversed and ordered the child back to its adoptive parents based solely on the financial requirements for unmarried birth fathers under South Carolina state statutes. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear that case and the lower court ruling was allowed to stand.
But during that same time period, the issue again arose in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. Citing state law requiring prenatal financial support, Godwin argued that Dusten Brown failed to provide any support to Veronica's birth mother, Christy Maldonado. Brown and his mother, however, testified in family court that they attempted numerous times to help Maldonado, but that she "willfully" cut off contact and especially refused to the financial support that both he and his family offered to her during her pregnancy.
Like Reeves, it was Brown’s "failure to provide any material or financial support" to Maldonado that formed the basis for the termination of his parental rights under South Carolina law. After he fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court to enforce his parental rights under the Indian Child Welfare Act, the justices reinforced the state's draconian statute, which legal observers say gives no weight whatsoever to visitation and "non-financial support." Siding with the Capobiancos, the justices remanded the case back to South Carolina for "further review." But the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed its earlier position and ruled in favor of the adoptive parents—again using the prenatal financial requirement to sever Brown's parental rights. Veronica was returned to the Capobiancos in September after living two years with her biological father.
Now, Simmons, like Reeves and Brown, is also in danger of having his parental rights terminated because of his apparent lack of prenatal support. Simmons has said that the birth mother, Crystal Tarbox, refused any contact or financial support from him during his pregnancy, which he also flatly denies. Tarbox's family said she told them that she was also instructed by Godwin to sever all contact and refuse money from Simmons.
“The only thing the Baby Veronica case did was give these adoption attorneys and their minions the greenlight to push as many adoptions of Indian kids as they can get their hands on,” said Don Mason, attorney for Jeremy Simmons, Deseray's birth father. “They are just consumed with greed and making money off these adoptions, and they don't care how they do it.”
Charles Tripp, a Cherokee Nation tribal member and managing partner of Oklahoma-based Legal Advocate for Indian Country law firm, is representing the Absentee Shawnee in Oklahoma in their quest to have Deseray returned to Oklahoma.
“[Adoption agencies] have turned toward Indian country because many of their former feeder markets have cut off American adoptions,” said Tripp recently. “When Russia and these other eastern European countries cut you off from their kids, something's wrong. Because they don't exactly have a great history with their own orphanages and so forth. But that just tells you how jaded these other countries have become toward the American adoption industry.”
In the meantime, another child sits in limbo in South Carolina awaiting her fate on Monday. Her adoptive parents, Bobby Bixler, 64, and Diane Bixler, 60, have been accused of being unfit and emotionally and physically abusive by two of their adult children, who adamantly oppose this adoption.