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Baby Veronica and Native American Family Values

A column by Jacqueline Pata about Baby Veronica.

The mainstream media has continued to make repeated factual errors when reporting on the high profile Supreme Court custody case involving a Native American father and his daughter. The latest are today’s Washington Post and New York Times editorial board opinions of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, being heard today by the Supreme Court. The misrepresentations are significant, one sided, and a direct affront to Native American family values.

The facts of the case are straightforward: Dusten Brown is an Iraq war veteran and a member of the Cherokee Nation. He understands service and commitment and nothing could be clearer than his commitment to his daughter Veronica.

Veronica is Brown’s now 3 1/2-year-old daughter; Veronica and Dusten now are a family together in Oklahoma. Veronica’s father and mother were engaged when she was conceived. When Dusten Brown first learned of the pregnancy, he begged his fiancé to marry him right away, to move into military housing on base with him, and even suggested she quit her job so that she could focus on their unborn child. He pledged to financially support her, their child and even her children from another relationship.

The father was heartbroken and confused when his pregnant fiancé broke off their engagement and stopped answering his phone calls and text messages. He called and sent text messages, repeatedly and without response. Finally, he got permission to leave the base and traveled to her home, some four hours away. Her car was there and he heard voices inside her home, but she would not come to the door.

Court testimony shows that the birth mother kept her plans to adopt the baby a secret from the father – because she knew that the father would never consent to give his child up for adoption. The father did not learn of the mother’s plans to give up the baby until the child was four months old and the father was on the verge of shipping out to Iraq. Once learning this news, the father immediately took all the legal steps he could consistent with the pressures of his deployment into hostile territory and subsequent combat.

Coach Patrick McClung and son Patrick after their final high school football game together

Although adoption lawyers for the South Carolina couple filed an adoption action just days after her birth, they waited four months to serve the father with the legal papers – finally serving him just before he deployed for his mission in Iraq.

In short, from his first knowledge of the pregnancy, the father expressed nothing but a sincere desire to love, support and care for his child.

Throughout the two-year long court proceedings, the father sent child support payments to the South Carolina couple, which deposited them into their attorney’s trust account. The father also purchased stuffed animals and other toys for his daughter during this period – all of which were returned, along with the 20 pairs of socks hand-knitted by the child’s grandmother.

The case was eventually taken up by three separate courts in South Carolina, and all of them ruled in favor of Dusten Brown. After a full, four-day trial, the Family Court judge noted that Brown “is the father of another daughter” and that “[t]he undisputed testimony is that he is a loving and devoted father. Even [Birth Mother] herself testified that [Brown] was a good father. There is no evidence to suggest that he would be anything other than an excellent parent to this child.” The Family Court judge concluded “the birth father is a fit and proper person to have custody of his child”; he “has demonstrated that he has the ability to parent effectively” and “has convinced me of his unwavering love for this child.”

Despite this factual record developed in tremendous detail by three separate courts over the last two years, members of the mainstream media have continued to misreport key aspects of the case.

Most damning of all are the media reports have created the mistaken impression that South Carolina family adopted the child and Dusten Brown is seeking to undo the adoption. The facts are exactly the opposite: Veronica was never adopted, and the attorneys for the South Carolina couple knew from the start that the father was going to fight for the right to raise his child and that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was going to be a key legal issue.

Despite the knowledge that the father wanted to raise the child and the fact that ICWA could apply, the South Carolina couple’s adoption lawyers made the decision to fight to keep the child -- against the will of her family and against the will of her Cherokee Nation.

In contrast, Dusten Brown and his representatives have always shown respect for the legal process and for the South Carolina couple – even though the process kept him apart from his daughter for two years.

Likewise, the mainstream media has failed to explore the misconduct that led to Veronica being removed from Oklahoma and taken away to South Carolina when she was barely a week old. The court proceedings in this case revealed that the lawyers were at fault, in particular, according to the brief Dusten Brown’s attorneys filed with the Supreme Court, “[a]lthough Mother's attorney provided the Cherokee Nation with father's name while inquiring whether the child would be an ‘Indian child’ subject to ICWA, the attorney misspelled Father's first name and provided both the wrong day and wrong year for Father's date of birth; based on these misstatements, the Cherokee Nation responded that the child appeared not to be an Indian child, adding that any misinformation would invalidate that determination. Mother testified at trial that she knew the Cherokee Nation's determination could not be correct—and that she informed her attorney of that fact—but no further efforts were made to determine whether Baby Girl was an Indian child.”

Had the Oklahoma Interstate Compact Commission been provided accurate information about this child's Native American heritage, the South Carolina adoption attorneys would never received permission to take her out of Oklahoma and all of this heartache for Dusten Brown and for the South Carolina family could have been avoided.

Yet almost no attention has been paid to the conduct of these adoption attorneys, and that is truly unfortunate. Because, in many ways, the story of the case of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl is about two increasingly common trends in the adoption services industry: First, attempts to purposefully circumvent ICWA through legal evasion, and second, attempts by adoption lawyers to take advantage of active duty service members in the process of being deployed to combat, or in active deployments.

That’s why the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), with the permission of the Brown family, has released a new video about the Brown family, and specifically about Dusten Brown, because up until recently the media has failed in their job in telling a balanced and full story about this case and the Brown family.

At its very heart, this case is about a father’s deep desire to raise his daughter Veronica. Dusten Brown is an Iraq war veteran, a family man, a man of conviction, and most importantly, a father. He is also a member of his tribal nation, the Cherokee Nation.

Let the world and the United States not forget that Native men and women are caring fathers and mothers, parents and grandparents Our family and community values are what have carried us through our most difficult times – we are all a family and we stand together. Our young people are our future and we will not give up on protecting them and their rights.

It’s long past time for the mainstream media to get the story right and to dig deeper and explore the endemic misconduct that is threatening to break up the families of both Native Americans and members of the military.

Jacqueline Pata is the Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). The Tribal Supreme Court Project, an initiative of NCAI and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) - organized a legal response to the Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl appeal along with the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA). The effort resulted in an overwhelming response in support of the family, ICWA, and federal Indian law. In total, 24 amicus briefs were submitted in support of the Brown family - Veronica the Daughter and Dusten the father - and the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).

Video: The National Congress of American Indians created the video below featuring Veronica with her biological father and his wife, Robin. (Related:U.S. Supreme Court Hears Baby Veronica Custody Case)