Law School Case Brief
Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl - 570 U.S. 637, 133 S. Ct. 2552 (2013)
When the adoption of an Indian child is voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent with sole custodial rights, the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978's, 25 U.S.C.S. §§ 1901- 1963, primary goal of preventing the unwarranted removal of Indian children and the dissolution of Indian families is not implicated.
While Birth Mother was pregnant with Biological Father's child, their relationship ended and Biological Father (a member of the Cherokee Nation) agreed to relinquish his parental rights. Birth Mother put Baby Girl up for adoption through a private adoption agency and selected Adoptive Couple, non-Indians living in South Carolina. For the duration of the pregnancy and the first four months after Baby Girl's birth, Biological Father provided no financial assistance to Birth Mother or Baby Girl. About four months after Baby Girl's birth, Adoptive Couple served Biological Father with notice of the pending adoption. In the adoption proceedings, Biological Father sought custody and stated that he did not consent to the adoption. Following a trial, which took place when Baby Girl was two years old, the South Carolina Family Court denied Adoptive Couple's adoption petition and awarded custody to Biological Father despite Adoptive Couples' providing financial support during the pregnancy and their custody of the child prior to the state court's ruling. At the age of 27 months, Baby Girl was handed over to Biological Father, whom she had never met. On appeal, the state supreme court affirmed the award of custody, concluding that The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) applied because the child custody proceeding related to an Indian child. It also held that Biological Father was a "parent" under the ICWA and the ICWA barred the termination of his parental rights. Moreover, the court held that had the Biological Father's rights been terminated, §1915(a)'s adoption placement preferences would have applied.
Under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), was the Biological Father entitled to custody of the child?
The United States Supreme Court held that when an Indian child's adoption was voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent with sole custodial rights, the ICWA's primary goal was not implicated. In the case at bar, it was established that the Biological Father did not provide financial support and never had custody of Baby Girl. The Adoptive Couple provided financial support during the pregnancy and had custody of the child prior to the state court's ruling. According to the Court, the phrase "continued custody" in 25 U.S.C.S. § 1912(f) referred to custody that a parent already had and did not apply where the Indian parent never had custody. This interpretation comported with the statutory text and the ICWA purpose to counteract the unwarranted removal of Indian children. Moreover, the Court ruled that § 1912(d) applied only where an Indian family's "breakup" would be precipitated by the termination of the parent's rights. When an Indian parent abandoned an Indian child prior to birth and never had custody, there was no relationship that would be discontinued, and § 1912(d) was inapplicable. The Court held that the 25 U.S.C.S. § 1915(a) adoption preferences were not implicated because Biological Father did not seek to adopt Baby Girl, but argued that his parental rights should not have been terminated. The Court reversed the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court and remanded the case for further proceedings.
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