Since losing the epic custody battle over “Baby Veronica,” a four-year ordeal that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Dusten Brown has steadfastly avoided media attention.
So when the girl’s biological father was invited to speak Thursday in south Tulsa, where federal officials were discussing the way Indian adoptions are regulated, he chose instead to send a written message, read aloud by an attorney.
That’s partly because Brown and his wife have a new baby boy to take care of in Nowata, an hour north of Tulsa, the attorney explained.
But it’s also because coming in person would have made a much bigger splash in the media.
And until now, Brown has avoided making even a small splash.
That he spoke out at all reflects how seriously the Cherokee Nation is taking a new set of proposed federal regulations, designed to avoid another custody case like the one over Veronica.
“Hopefully, these regulations keep other Indian children, families and tribes from suffering the heartbreak that we experienced over the last 5½ years,” Brown said.
The proposed regulations, drawn up by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs partly in response to Veronica’s situation, would tighten enforcement of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act.
BIA officials came to Tulsa to hear public comments about the proposed regulations, drawing a standing room-only crowd to a hotel ballroom, where tears were sometimes shed and voices were occasionally raised during nearly three hours of emotional testimony.
Chrissi Nimmo, an assistant attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, described the chaotic night of Sept. 23, 2013, when the Brown family handed Veronica over to her adoptive parents.
Nimmo and Veronica, then just a few days past her fourth birthday, sat on the floor playing games while her biological father agonized over a decision. Face near-certain jail time to keep the custody battle going, or send his daughter back to South Carolina?
The adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, had spent weeks going to several different courtrooms across Oklahoma to finally secure an order granting them physical custody. And Nimmo was ultimately the one who took the girl to them.
“It was a modern-day forced removal of an Indian child,” she said. “It was the opposite of everything ICWA is meant to prevent.”
The Capobiancos arranged a private adoption with Brown’s ex-fiancee and came to Oklahoma for Veronica’s birth in 2009.
About to deploy to Iraq with the Oklahoma National Guard, Brown didn’t find out about the adoption until the girl was 4 months old. And he claimed he was tricked into a signing a document that acknowledged the adoption.
With help from the Cherokee Nation, he went to court in South Carolina to argue that the adoption violated ICWA. And he initially won the case, bringing Veronica back to Oklahoma in late 2011.
The Capobiancos appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices decided in their favor. Since Brown didn’t have custody at birth, there was no “existing Indian family” to be protected by ICWA, the court decided.
Now, the BIA’s proposed regulations would specifically close the so-called “existing Indian family” loophole.
In trying to overturn a Supreme Court precedent, however, the BIA is overstepping its power, said Paul Swain, a Tulsa adoption attorney who represented the Capobiancos.
“An agency doesn’t have authority to make laws out of thin air,” Swain told BIA officials Thursday. The proposed regulations would “essentially redefine what is an Indian child and impose rules on Indian adoptions that simply don’t exist in ICWA.”
Like the Brown family, the Capobiancos have largely withdrawn from public view since taking Veronica back to the East Coast. And it seems the two families have reached some kind of understanding with each other.
Brown’s statement — his first public comments since October 2013, when he gave a tearful press conference to announce he was ending all legal challenges to the adoption — confirmed that he still has contact with the girl, although he didn’t explain what kind of contact or how often it occurs.
“Veronica, again I say to you, my home will always be your home,” Brown said. “I miss you more than words can express.”