On October 15th, The Doctor Phil Show featured the story of Matt and Melanie Capobianco, a couple that adopted a Cherokee baby named Veronica more than two years ago. Under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, Veronica was removed from their home in January 2012 to live with her biological father, who is also a Cherokee citizen. The case has received much attention nationally, and some opinions of the case see the court’s decision as positive for the ICWA, the Cherokee Nation, and Veronica’s biological family.
Others have criticized the decision as being traumatic to the toddler and wildly unfair to the adoptive parents. The presentation on The Doctor Phil Show has been criticized as one-sided by Native Americans, since much of the show ignored the reasons behind the ICWA and why it was applied in this case. Of course, the case is emotional for all involved. However, the grief of the adoptive parents was certainly highlighted.
The Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted by Congress in 1978 in order to help protect and preserve Native tribes and families. It does this by ensuring that tribes have jurisdiction over Native children both on and off reservations. Prior to this a 1976 study estimated that 25-35% of all Native children were removed from their families and placed in non-Native homes. In some cases the per capita rate for Native children vs. non-Native children in foster care was 16 times higher. These children presumably were growing up outside of their heritage and culture, and outside of their extended family networks. The intended effect was assimilation and the destruction of tribes as separate nations.
With the ICWA, preference for Native adoptions are given first to family members, then to other tribal members, then to members of outside tribes. If these are not options for a child, then the child can be adopted by a non-Native family.
Few, if any, of these facts were explained during The Doctor Phil Show. Instead Matt stated that, “The Child Welfare Act is destroying families,” and told of how he and his wife were selected by Veronica’s birth mother to be her adoptive parents. However, Veronica’s birth mother, Christina Maldonado, signed the adoption papers without the consent of Veronica’s biological father. According to reports, he was unaware of the adoption process for four months and was only informed shortly before he was sent to Iraq. In order to get her back, he sought help from his tribal government and his parental rights were upheld through three court decisions.
According to the National Indian Child Welfare Association, both the Capobiancos and their attorneys knew that Veronica is Native and that her adoption would fall under the ICWA. They state, “the Capobiancos were advised to circumvent the law, putting Veronica at high risk.” Indeed, the portrayal of the case ignored the fact that Veronica is now with her father, sister, stepmother, grandparents, and an extended network of community that will all serve to keep Veronica connected to her heritage.