She was confused by the words, at first, and a little unsure. Then e-mails poured in and lawyers called and then there was one phone call she had to make — to her husband, Matt, at work.
All she could think to say was this: “We won.”
For now, at least. The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Indian Child Welfare Act did not command that custody of “Baby Veronica,” as she has become known, must remain with her birth father, Dusten Brown, with whom she has lived for the last 18 months of her life.
The court sent the case back to lower courts and, as has been the case for all her young life, more judges will determine which of the adults who love Veronica will be allowed to care for her.
And just as there was joy in Charleston, there was disbelief in Nowata, Okla., where Baby Veronica, who will soon outgrow her Internet name, lives with Brown and his new wife.
“I would say devastated is a good word to use,” said Chrissi Nimmo, assistant attorney general for the Cherokee Nation.
The case has drawn national attention. The Capobiancos were ordered by the South Carolina Supreme Court in 2011 to turn over the girl to the Native American father who once gave up rights to her but now has embraced parenthood.
But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said the ICWA did not require that outcome.
Congress passed the law in 1978 to discourage adoptions outside tribes, erecting high hurdles for ending Indians’ parental rights. Lawmakers sought to end what they found to be a shameful practice of removing Indian children from their families and tribes to place them in foster care and with non-Indian families.
But the law does not apply, Alito said, when “the parent abandoned the Indian child before birth and never had custody of the child.”
He said the act was designed to “preserve the cultural identity and heritage of Indian tribes,” not “put certain vulnerable children at a great disadvantage solely because an ancestor — even a remote one — was an Indian.”
Although the majority agreed that Veronica is considered an Indian child under the law, the opinion pointed out several times that she is only 3/256th of Indian descent.
Brown did not want to comment, his lawyers said, but his supporters vowed the fight is not over.
“My heart, and no doubt the hearts of all of Indian Country, goes out to Dusten, our fellow Cherokee citizen, and his entire family,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker said in a statement. “Everything this family has gone through the past few years, just to keep his biological child — HIS baby girl — is more overwhelming than any of us can imagine.”