Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

PETITIONER: Adoptive Couple
RESPONDENT: Baby Girl, a minor child under the age of fourteen years, Birth Father, and the Cherokee Nation
LOCATION: Biological Mother's residence

DOCKET NO.: 12-399
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: South Carolina Supreme Court

CITATION: 570 US (2013)
GRANTED: Jan 04, 2013
ARGUED: Apr 16, 2013
DECIDED: Jun 25, 2013

ADVOCATES:
Charles A. Rothfeld - for respondents Birth Father et al.
Edwin S. Kneedler - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the United States as amicus curiae supporting respondents Birth Father et al.
Lisa S. Blatt - for the petitioner
Paul D. Clement - for respondent Guardian ad Litem in support of the petitioner

Facts of the case

When the biological mother of Baby Girl became pregnant she did not live with the father and the father did not support the mother financially. The mother sent the father a text message asking if he would rather pay child support or relinquish his parental rights. He sent a text back, saying that he would relinquish his rights, though he later testified that he thought he was relinquishing his rights only to the mother. The biological father was a registered member of the Cherokee Nation. The biological mother attempted to verify this status, but spelled the father's name wrong and misrepresented his birthday in the request, so the Nation could not locate the father's registration. The mother listed Baby Girl's ethnicity as "Hispanic" instead of "Native American" on the birth certificate. The mother decided to put Baby Girl up for adoption because she had two other children that she struggled to support.

Adoptive Couple, who resided in South Carolina, began adoption proceedings in that state. The Cherokee Nation finally identified the father as a registered member and filed a notice of intervention, stating that Baby Girl was an "Indian Child" under the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). The father stated that he did not consent to the adoption and would seek custody of Baby Girl. After trial, the family court denied Adoptive Couple's petition for adoption and granted custody to the biological father. The court held that the biological father was a "parent" under the ICWA because of his paternity and pursuit of custody as soon as he learned that Baby Girl was being put up for adoption. Adoptive Couple did not follow the procedural directives in the ICWA to obtain the father's consent prior to initiating adoption proceedings. The Supreme Court of South Carolina affirmed.

Question

Can a non-custodial parent invoke ICWA to block an adoption voluntarily and lawfully initiated by a non-Indian parent under state law?

Does ICWA define "parent" to include an unwed biological father who has not complied with state law rules to attain legal status as a parent?

Media for Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 16, 2013 in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 25, 2013 in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

The second case is Adoptive Couple versus Baby Girl, No. 12-399.

This case involves the custody of a young girl who through her biological father has some Native-American Ancestry.

Specifically, we are told she is 3/256 Cherokee and as a result falls within the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978.

Before the child was born, her biological father refused to provide any support for her mother even though he was able to do so and he sent the mother a text message giving up his parental rights.

The mother arranged for the baby to be adopted and the biological father initially signed papers stating that he did not object to the adoption.

However, he later changed his position and sought custody.

The South Carolina Supreme Court held that certain provisions of the Indian Child Welfare Act required the child at the age of 27 months to be taken from the only parents she had ever known and handed over to the biological father.

We hold that the Federal Act does not support this result.

A provision of the Indian Child Welfare Act 25 U.S.C. Section 1912(f) bars involuntary termination of a parent’s rights in the absence of a heightened showing that serious harm to the Indian Child is likely to result from the parents “continued custody of the child, the key phrase there is continued custody.”

We hold that this provision does not apply when, as in this case, the relevant parent never had custody of the child, continued custody cannot be terminated if there never was any custody in the first place.

Another provision of the same statute, Section1912 (d), conditions involuntary termination of parental rights with respect to an Indian child on a showing that remedial efforts have been made to prevent the “Breakup of the Indian family.”

We hold that this provision is inapplicable when, as in this case, the parent abandoned the Indian child before birth and never had custody of the child.

In that situation no Indian family is broken up.

Finally, we clarify that Section 1915(a) which provides placement preferences for the adoption of Indian children does not bar a non Indian family like adoptive couple from adopting an Indian child when no other eligible candidates have sought to adopt the child.

We, therefore, reverse the judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court and remand for further proceedings.

Justice Thomas and Justice Breyer have filed concurring opinions.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion.

Justice Sotomayor has also filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Ginsburg and Kagan have joined and in which Justice Scalia has joined and in part.