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Supreme Court Decides Indian Child Welfare Act Custody Battle

While Proposition 8 stole the headlines across the country, the Supreme Court was making a life altering decision for one little girl. The mother and father had split during the pregnancy, and the father sent a text to the mother relinquishing his parental rights in exchange for not having to pay child support. Does the girl being 3/256ths part Cherokee give the father unalienable custody rights? The ICWA, Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, says it does.

At birth, her prospective adoptive father cut her umbilical cord. The pregnant mother had found a loving couple to adopt her baby girl even before birth. Yet when the baby was 4 months old and the biological father learned of the pending adoption, only then he decided that he wanted custody. At 27 months old, a lower court gave custodial rights back to the biological father, and the baby girl was given to someone she had never met before. According to the ICWA, “[a]ny consent given prior to, or within ten days after, birth of the Indian child shall not be valid.” In fact, “[i]n any voluntary proceeding for termination of parental rights to, or adoptive placement of, an Indian child, the consent of the parent may be withdrawn for any reason at any time prior to the entry of final decree of termination or adoption, as the case may be, and the child shall be returned to the parent.” In addition, the ICWA bars the adoption of an Indian child absent a showing beyond a reasonable doubt 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.” It also requires that efforts be made “to prevent the breakup of the Indian family.”

So why did the Supreme Court reverse the decision of the lower court and rule in favor of the adoptive parents? Where was the best interests of the child analysis? Was this case about the rights of adoptive parents, the ICWA, or something else? How this case will be interpreted by state courts around the country in cases affecting the rights of adoptive parents and biological parents remains to be seen.

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