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Baby Veronica Supreme Court ruling raises the question: What is a parent?

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Reuters / Handout

(Read caption) Veronica and her biological father Dusten Brown pose for a photo on Brown's parents' farm in Nowata, Oklahoma, in this handout photo taken in early 2013. The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal law did not compel her to be sent to Brown.

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What makes a parent?

The answer to this seemingly simple question is, in practice, torturously complex, if the recent adoption case of 3-year-old Veronica Brown is any guide. 

Veronica, a Native American, spent the first 27 months of her life with her (non-Native American) adoptive parents. The US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 yesterday that a federal law doesn't compel her to be sent to live with her biological father, who is petitioning for custody under the Indian Child Welfare Act. This leaves her ultimate placement up to a South Carolina court.

The actors in the case include:

  • Veronica's adoptive parents (Matt and Melanie Capobianco), who can make a compelling case simply through the time and care they've already given to this young child.
  • Her biological father Dusten Brown, who abandoned Veronica before birth but now wants to step up and take custody.
  • Her biological mother, who saw a brighter future for Veronica in a loving adoptive home.
  • The US court system, which must balance upholding the letter of the law as interpreted by judges and justices with the actual human outcomes of its decisions.
  • And the Cherokee Nation, which views the case in the greater context of the cultural assimilation (and destruction) wrought by white settlers on Native American culture in general, and via a historically flawed adoption process in particular.

What unites all of these actors is, nominally, an interest in Veronica's "best interests," a phrase that's no easier to disentangle than "parent." What makes Veronica's case so compelling for an outside observer is the overwhelming power of the forces that tug at her. 

If you watch a divorce proceeding and custody battle from an outside perspective, your heart goes out to the children involved, who are being torn between two parents who presumably love them and will care for them to varying degrees to be determined imperfectly by a stranger in a robe. Lives hang in the balance, and two whole families are swept up in the conflict.


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