COLUMBIA — Veronica's entire 4-year-old life has been lived at the center of a protracted custody dispute between her biological Native American father and a couple in South Carolina chosen as adoptive parents by her mother.
Now that the legal fight is over, the struggle to create a normal existence for the young Cherokee girl begins.
Late Monday, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to uphold a stay keeping Veronica with her father, Dusten Brown, and ordered that custody be turned over to Matt and Melanie Capobianco, of Charleston.
The Capobiancos began the long journey back from Oklahoma to Veronica's new permanent home following the resolution of a yearslong battle involving questions of jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty in both Native American and U.S. courts.
When they get home, their topmost priority should be creating the stable life that Veronica has lacked in her first four years of life, experts say.
“The saga she's been through really seems to be this tragic tale of law and adults who talk about the best interest of the child but don't seem to be doing what's in the best interest of the child,” said Dr. Naranjan Karnik, a specialist in child and adolescent psychiatry at Chicago's Rush University. “Kids always know when there's uncertainty in the air. To not know where your home is going to be is the most unsettling thing.”
Dr. Philip Fisher, a psychologist specializing in childhood trauma at the University of Oregon, agrees.
Fisher notes that children who have been in unsettled home environments, such as shuttling between different houses or families, can suffer. At 4 years old, traumatic changes can actually hamper development in the part of the brain that helps someone make good decisions, Fisher said.
Veronica was born Sept. 15, 2009 to an unwed, non-Native American mother in Oklahoma who decided to give her up for adoption and chose the Capobiancos in South Carolina as her adoptive parents.
But Brown also had petitioned for custody shortly after her birth, and in December 2011, after Veronica had lived with the Capobiancos for a little more than two years, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in the father's favor. The court said that under the Indian Child Welfare Act, it was in the little girl's best interest to be raised by her biological father because of his Native American heritage. Consequently, Veronica went to live with Brown in Oklahoma.
Two more years passed, and this past summer, the tables turned again: The U.S. Supreme Court – responding to a challenge from the Capobiancos to the South Carolina court's decision – ruled that the Indian Child Welfare Act did not apply in this case because Brown had been absent from the child's life. The South Carolina courts finalized the couple's adoption and ordered Brown to hand Veronica over. Two Oklahoma courts certified the order.
But Brown wasn't done. He was still hoping that the Oklahoma Supreme Court would refuse to lift a stay that was in place to keep Veronica with him. The court declined the request, and Veronica was transferred Monday night to the Capobiancos.
Justice Noma Gurich dissented.
“We cannot ignore the fact that (Veronica), at the age of 27 months, has already been moved from one set of `parents' to another, after lengthy judicial consideration of her best interests,” Gurich wrote. “Under the issues present to this court, an immediate change of custody without any consideration of her best interests will require a four-year-old child to resolve her feelings of loss and grief for a second time.”
The Cherokee Nation fought on Brown's behalf for permanent custody, but late Monday, the tribe's attorney general, Todd Hembree, indicated the fight was over. In a statement, Hembree expressed hope that the Capobiancos would “honor their word” to allow Brown to be remain an important part of the girl's life.
“We also look forward to her visiting the Cherokee Nation for many years to come, for she is always welcome,” he added.
The Capobiancos have repeatedly said they wanted to honor Veronica's Cherokee heritage, and at one point, with the help of several adoption consultants and experts, they laid out a transition plan that included keeping Brown in Veronica's life.
But the most recent negotiations on a settlement for shared custody or visitations broke down Monday, a few hours before the Oklahoma court ruled. Details of the proposed compromise were not publicly released.
In the short term, perhaps the most important thing will be to reacquaint Veronica with the people who will raise her. Given her age when she left South Carolina, and the two years that have passed since, both Fisher and Karnik say it is unlikely she remembers much of her time with the Capobiancos previously.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, the couple said they had been able to visit Veronica, which “allowed us to reconnect as a family and ease her transition home.”
“We are all doing well and our focus now is on healing and getting our life back to normal,” they said.
The Capobiancos also acknowledged the disappointment of Veronica's biological father and the Cherokee Nation.
“While we are overjoyed to bring Veronica home, we sympathize with the Brown family during this difficult time,” they said. “Despite our differences, and everything that has happened over the last several months, we all love Veronica and want what is best for her.”