In this most recent U.S. Supreme Court term, the Court has heard two cases involving the domestic relations of a state. In addition to the arguments on same sex marriage, on April 16th, the Court also heard argument on the adoption of a three-year girl. The law at issue is the Indian Child Welfare Act.
The Act, passed in the 1970’s gives Indian tribes exclusive jurisdiction over any child custody proceeding involving a Native American child who resided or was domiciled on Native American land. The Act was passed to address the removal of Native American children by public and private adoption agencies and it places priority on allowing the child to grow up in the traditions of their culture by allowing the tribe and the child’s relatives a say in the placement of the child. What is unusual about this Act compared to most state’s custody laws is that is significantly broadens the class of individuals that have standing to raise issues about the adoption. Most states limit standing to the biological parents and, under some laws, the grandparents of the child.
The Indian Child Welfare Act, in this instance, was applied to overturn the adoption of a girl by a South Carolina couple. The girl, now three years old, was returned to her biological father in Oklahoma, a member of the Cherokee Nation, after he sought to overturn the adoption based on the natural mother’s failure to obtain his consent. The case made its way through the entirety of the South Carolina legal system and sided with the natural father on the basis of the Act, despite identifying the adopting parents as “ideal parents” – small comfort to them, no doubt.
The adoptive couple’s appeal is based on two questions:
(1) Whether a non-custodial parent can invoke ICWA to block an adoption voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent under state law, and;
(2) Whether ICWA defines "parent" in 25 U.S.C. § 1903(9) to include an unwed biological father who has not complied with state law rules to attain legal status as a parent.
The second question is interesting due to the case law in various states as to whether or not unwed biological fathers have the same decree of protections as mothers. In Pennsylvania, any adoption requires the voluntary or involuntary termination of both biological parents’ rights, and both parents are protected under Pennsylvania’s child custody law; marital status is irrelevant and updates to the custody statute made it (parental) gender neutral. This does not presume that complications can occur in instances where paternity is not established, but generally, adoptions in Pennsylvania require notice of an attempt to terminate parental rights and afford the biological parents the opportunity to contest the termination.
The Supreme Court’s decision in this case may result in the clarifications to existing law as to the definition of “parent” under the Act and the extend of the scope the Act has for addressing the adoption of Native American children where the proceeding otherwise satisfied prevailing state law. The Act, as a Federal statute, would preempt the laws of the states where the adoption occurred so ultimately the Supreme Court will render a decision fairly narrow in scope as to whether the Act applies to this adoption and, if so, the overturn of the South Carolina adoption would be upheld.
It is worth remembering that nuanced, debated legal issues impact the actual lives of people. The parents that raised this child from infancy until she was three were abruptly taken from this child’s life; the father of the child may never have known the mother put his daughter up for adoption and is now trying to forge a relationship with the child. Whatever the Court’s decision, one side will be bitterly disappointed and likely never to see this child again.