It probably wouldn't have made a difference in Baby Veronica's case, but a recent change in Cherokee Nation tribal law might prevent future custody battles, officials said Tuesday.
In a resolution passed Monday night, the Tribal Council gave biological parents first preference in adoption and foster-care cases, moving them ahead of a child's extended family, other members of the Cherokee Nation or other Indian families.
The tribe has always believed that biological parents, as long as they are fit and willing, should be the first choice to raise a child, officials said.
But that wasn't sufficiently clear in tribal law, said Chrissi Nimmo, an assistant attorney general for the Cherokee Nation.
"Now it is," she said.
Leading the tribe's epic legal battle to keep Veronica with her Cherokee family in Oklahoma, Nimmo was ultimately the official who handed the 4-year-old girl over to her adoptive parents, who are now raising her in South Carolina.
If this week's reform had been passed when Veronica was born, the outcome probably wouldn't have been any different, Nimmo said.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided last summer that the girl's father wasn't protected under the federal Indian Child Welfare Act because he didn't have custody of Veronica when she was born.
If ICWA didn't apply to Dusten Brown, then neither would the tribe's order of preference in awarding custody, which ICWA authorizes a tribe to determine.
But the Cherokee Nation is involved in more than 1,200 Indian Child Welfare cases a year. And about one-third of those cases involve children who are being adopted or placed in foster homes.
This week's reform will clarify the tribe's position in those cases, Nimmo said.
"Parental rights could still be terminated if necessary," she said. "But a court would have to find good cause to pass over a biological parent."
Meanwhile, more than three months after Veronica left Oklahoma, attorneys for the adoptive parents are still trying to collect more than $1 million in legal fees from the Cherokee Nation and Veronica's biological family.
Courts in Nowata County and South Carolina have not yet ruled on whether Matt and Melanie Capobianco's legal team has a right to the money.
During the drawn-out court case, the attorneys repeatedly said they were working "pro bono," or for free.
Michael Overall 918-581-8383
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