Willamette Law Online

United States Supreme Court Certiorari Granted


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Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: January 4, 2013
Case #: 12-399
Court Below: South Carolina Supreme Court, 731 S.E.2d 550 (2012)
Full Text Opinion: http://www.sccourts.org/opinions/HTMLFiles/SC/27148.pdf

Indian Law: (1) Whether a voluntary adoption initiated by a non-Indian parent under state law may be blocked by the Indian Child Welfare Act when the Indian parent did not have prior custody; and (2) whether ICWA’s definition of "parent" includes a biological father without legal status as a parent under state law.

Baby Girl was born September 15, 2009. The biological father (Father) was a member of the Cherokee Nation who had relinquished parental rights to the non-Indian mother (Mother) in June 2009. Mother voluntarily started an adoption proceeding with Petitioners who filed for adoption September 18, 2009 in South Carolina. The Father learned of the pending adoption on January 6, 2010, and he requested a stay, and sought custody. The Cherokee Nation determined Baby Girl was an Indian child and intervened as a party.

The family court found that the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), 25 U.S.C. § 1901, et seq., prevented a relinquishment of Father’s parental rights absent his consent or a court finding that the child’s continued custody by the Indian parent was likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child, denied the adoption, and ordered Baby Girl transferred to Father in December 2011.

Petitioners appealed to the South Carolina Supreme Court and argued Father failed to meet the definition of “parent” under ICWA § 1903(9) because he was not married to Mother and did not acknowledge or establish paternity to the satisfaction of state law. Petitioners also contended the parental termination provision of § 1912(f) was misapplied because Father never had custody of Baby Girl so she was not part of an “existing Indian family” as other states have required to block an adoption.

The South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the family court and held Father was a “parent” because he acknowledged paternity by engaging court proceedings and had established paternity by DNA testing. The court also declined to adopt the “existing Indian family doctrine” interpretation of the ICWA embraced by other states.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve the split between states as to (i) whether a voluntary adoption initiated by a non-Indian parent under state law may be blocked by ICWA § 1912(f) when the Indian parent did not have prior custody; and (ii) whether ICWA’s definition of “parent” includes a biological father without legal status as a parent under state law.