The Indian Child Welfare Act: Child Custody and Adoption Issues Hit The Supreme Court
Family law cases, albeit important, are almost never heard by the U.S. Supreme Court because the Tenth Amendment typically leaves family matters to the states. However, a recent custody clash over an adorable Native American girl has found its way to our nation’s highest court, giving the Justices an opportunity to scrutinize the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The law was put in place to protect the one-third of Native American families who were losing their children to white foster and adoptive parents. However, as you will see, this 35-year-old law and its sweeping effects may be out of place in today’s modern society.
At the heart of the current dispute is a three-year-old girl who is the product of a relationship between a Cherokee Indian man and a Hispanic woman. The couple was previously engaged but, when the couple broke up before the child’s birth, the father let the pregnant woman know that he was relinquishing all of his parental rights. The child was born, put up for adoption, and spent two years with her adoptive parents until a South Carolina Court ordered that the girl be returned to her biological father. Apparently, the child’s father only intended to relinquish his parental rights to the Mother—not to an adoptive family—and he objected to the adoption four months after the adoption took place.
The little girl’s adoptive family is devastated, and rightfully so. If the state of South Carolina was permitted to apply its standard child custody procedures, and the “best interest of the child” standard adopted by many states including California, the biological father would have had no rights whatsoever and the little girl could have remained with the parents who raised her from infancy. Nevertheless, in the United States, the U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes enacted by Congress are the supreme law of the land and completely trump any state laws that come into conflict. Justice Kennedy noted, “What we have here is a question of a federal statute which…displaces the ordinary best interest [of the child] determinations of the state courts.”
The Supreme Court will deliver its opinion on this case later this month. In all likelihood, the effects of the decision will reach not only families interested in domestic adoption, but will also touch on the bigger question that asks who is best-suited to handle family law matters or determine parenthood—the states and their family courts or the federal government? We should have an answer soon.
As you can see, even simple family law matters like adoption can quickly become complicated. If you have any questions relating to adoption or any other family law issue, please contact the certified Family Law Specialists (as certified by The State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization) at Lonich Patton Ehrlich Policastri. Our attorneys have decades of experience handling complex family law matters and would be happy to meet with you for a free consultation.
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