As I’ve watched the custody dispute unfold over the nearly four-year-old Cherokee girl known as Baby Veronica, I’ve felt as if this little girl was me. Just like Veronica, I was a baby taken from my Native American biological dad without him knowing and placed in an adoption. And just like her my Native identity was erased from my birth certificate. What’s different for Veronica is that her dad was able to fight from the moment he found out what was actually happening. Like in my own situation, I’ve wondered who is really responsible for Veronica’s adoption going so wrong.
I’m a “lost bird," one of thousands of Native children adopted-out of tribal communities from the late 1950s to late 1960s as part of a federal program called the Indian Adoption Project. The Project came after the decades long boarding school era when government and missionary schools aimed to “kill the Indian to save the child.”
Catholic Charities, the adoption branch of the church, did not contact my natural father Earl when I was born in 1956, nor did they need his permission to sign me away for adoption. When I finally found him 40 years later, he said he would have raised me, had he known I was being put up for adoption. But he didn’t know because my biological mother Helen wasn’t Native American, just like Veronica’s mom Christy, and she didn’t want me to be Native.
The programs traumatized me, and thousands of children like me, who were forcibly removed from their Nations, communities, and families. By the late 1970s, one-third of all Native children were in foster care and 90 percent of those were in homes with non-Native parents. Our children were silently slipping through our fingers. Finally, in 1978, a federal law—the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)—was passed to protect Native children and their families.
Today, details in the Baby Veronica case and trends from publicly available data about adoptions point to a troubling prospect for Indian country – Native children may once again be a target for removal from their communities. Over the last decade the adoption industry has faced decreasing rates of international adoption prospects, primarily due to changes in policies by foreign governments, like Russia recently. According to U.S. Department of State Office of Children's Issues 62 percent fewer children are available from other countries than a decade ago – down from 23,000 in 2004 to 8,700 in 2011. This major shift comes as the demand in the U.S. for adopting voluntarily relinquished domestic children remains high, while the availability of these children is low and shrinking.
The number of families and individuals looking to adopt is only increasing during this decline in options. A percentage of this increased demand can be connected to calls for capable families and individuals to adopt – especially in the faith community. Take for example the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2009 resolution calling on its 45,000 churches and nearly 16 million members “to pray for guidance as to whether God is calling them to adopt or foster a child or children.”
While there are many in the adoption industry and in religious institutions guided by best practices, there are a number of red flags in Veronica’s adoption case that raise serious concerns. Specifically, the adoptive couple’s supporters, including fringe faith based organizations, tout a hauntingly familiar “save the Native child” mission. In fact, it’s become clear that the close supporters of the couple are actively working to erase ICWA altogether and open the flood gates to more adoptions from Indian country.
According to South Carolina court records, the biological mother Ms. Maldonado and the adoptive couple, the Capobiancos, were connected by the Nightlight Christian Adoption Agency – a Christian based non-profit with offices in California, Colorado, and South Carolina. According to the agency “Nightlight provides domestic and international adoption services, to families in all 50 states, and embryo donation and adoption worldwide” while remaining “committed to carrying out our mission in a way that will bring glory and honor to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Faith is clearly a driving factor in this adoption effort. As Ms. Maldonado pointed out in a recent Washington Post op-ed, speaking publicly for the first time in years, she wrote that she chose the Capobiancos because she, “could tell they were people of strong faith, like me.”
Adoption agencies like Nightlight rely on the ever dwindling “supply” of children for their livelihood, not just to achieve their religious mission. That’s why it’s concerning that the adoption lawyers filed error-filled ICWA paperwork to the Cherokee Nation. Even the original South Carolina Supreme Court decision stated that though Maldonado alerted the agency of the father’s status as citizen of the Cherokee Nation, “It appears that there were some efforts to conceal his Indian status.” If those efforts to conceal his status had never occurred, Veronica’s father would have been notified of the attempt to adopt his daughter and she would have been with her father from the very start. Instead, without Mr. Brown’s knowledge, Veronica was removed from Oklahoma to South Carolina just days after her birth. Mr. Brown was then notified of the adoption four months later, only days before he was to be deployed to Iraq with the United States Army.
The actions of the Capobianco’s supporting cast during this saga should raise the greatest concern. The Capobianco’s PR agent, Jessica Munday, a family friend, has been working hand-in-hand with a group called the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare to operate the “Save Veronica” campaign which gathers support and raises money for the couple’s legal fees –$40,000 by the end of 2012. If the mission to “save” Veronica from her Cherokee family wasn’t problematic enough, the Capobianco’s supporters have stealthily created a new organization with other religious adoption interests to lobby Capitol Hill to end ICWA’s protections.
Veronica is not the child of a white couple caught in a King Solomon custody nightmare, as told by the “Save Veronica” advocates to the national media. Together the actions to keep Veronica’s Native father in the dark, to keep him from his daughter, and his subsequent long stand against those trying to “save” Veronica makes him David in an all too familiar battle with a holier-than-thou Goliath. If anything these circumstances are the very reason ICWA was passed into law in the first place.
One thing Veronica will have, that many of us lost birds never had, is a public record that her father and many others stood up for her and her best interest and didn’t let her go silently into the night. If we’ve learned anything as a nation, as a people, as institutions and people of faith, we won’t let her go into the night at all. She should remain at home in Oklahoma, with her loving father and her very real family. If we do let her go, that will be the greatest sin of all and one she, and we, will find it very hard to make peace with.
Trace A. DeMeyer is a Shawnee-Cherokee author and journalist. She blogs about American Indian Adoptees at SplitFeathers.blogspot.com. She is the author of One Small Sacrifice: a Memoir, and Two Worlds: Lost Children of the Indian Adoption Projects.