Maine attorney general dismayed over high court’s decision in Indian custody case

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine’s attorney general Friday expressed dismay over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this week that will send a 3½-year-old girl named Veronica, now living with her Cherokee birth father in Oklahoma, back to the South Carolina home of her adoptive parents, who are not Indians.

“The decision places limits on the applicability of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) in a case in which the court found that the biological father who was a tribal member had relinquished his rights to his daughter because he did not have ‘legal custody’ of the child,” Attorney General Janet T. Mills said in a press release.

In March, Mills signed onto a “friend of the court” brief[1] that urged the parental rights of the father be upheld. The court ruled 5-4 that the father, identified by the Washington Post as Dusten Brown of Nowata, Okla., gave up his parental rights in a text message sent days before his unit was deploying to Iraq.

“That is a deplorable result, a result that would not have occurred in Maine,” Mills said Friday in a press release. “In this state we will continue to give tribal parents maximum deference.”

The court ruling, written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, did not call the law itself into question, but said it was misapplied in this particular case, according to the Post.

The Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in 1978, requires that a parent who is a tribal member be given strong preference for custody, according to Mills.

The law further requires that in an adoption placement of an Indian child whose parents have given up their rights, state courts must give preference to a member of the child’s extended tribal family or to other Indian families unless good cause is shown to deviate from those preferences.

“Under Maine law, this man would not have lost rights and responsibilities to his child,” Mills said. “He would be presumed to have equal parental rights with the mother under longstanding Maine statutes. We will continue to urge courts and case workers in Maine to apply ICWA fully, giving effect to Congress’ intent to ensure that the rights of Indian children, their parents and their tribes are fully respected in child custody proceedings.”

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