It is dinner time at the Brown home in Oklahoma. As dusk settles over the horizon, ground venison sizzles in a skillet on the stove as Veronica Brown and her father, Dusten, feed two pet geese in the backyard. Two small dogs trail behind, climbing over each other to stay with the little girl. A joyful bundle of dimples and curly dark hair, Veronica Brown is the master and commander of her backyard empire.
“Here is their swimming pool. It has sharks in it,” she points authoritatively to the cartoon sharks on the bottom. “But they drink out of it.”
In a remarkable act of equanimity, one of the geese allows her to pick him up and put him in the water. She strokes his head and gives him some more pellets from her hand. Not to be outdone, the other goose jumps in the small pool and tries to horn in on the food.
“She knows her own mind,” says her father proudly. “She knows exactly what she thinks, and she won't hesitate to tell you.”
Veronica at her Bartesville, Okla. home in April
Shortly after, Brown's wife, Robin, comes out to the family's deep freezer and grabs an armful of more frozen venison. She is still dressed in her scrubs from a long day at nursing school. Brown has taken the day off from his construction job to work on the house and run errands.
Their home is modest but immaculate and it is clear that the Brown's take great pride in keeping it up. They have painted and restored most of the interior, but have taken a break—for the time being.
“Every time we go to Home Depot, we come out with three more projects,” says Brown, smiling wearily. “We had to stop because it's always something.”
This much is clear: If one did not know that this small family was at the center of one of the most important Indian law cases in the last 30 years, the Browns would seem like any other family at 6 o'clock in America. Two tired parents, a three-year-old with endless energy, dinner on the stove, dogs yapping, geese squawking and a house in the middle of remodeling. In military-speak, they are squared away.
But underneath the normalcy, Dusten Brown is fully aware of the enormous implications—both personally and tribally—for the blandly named Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl now under review by the Supreme Court.
“It's always in the back of my mind,” says Brown, an Iraq War veteran who is still enlisted in the National Guard. “But I just go through every day being a parent, just acting like it's not going on.”
To summarize, after Brown asked ex-fiancee Christine Maldonado to marry him, she became pregnant. Shortly there after, she broke off the engagement and contact with Brown and quietly put the couple's child up for adoption without notifiying him of her intentions—which ultimately pitted Dusten Brown against the pre-adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, and the Capobianco's adoption lawyers, who apparently were not prepared for the fact that Brown turned out to be a tougher customer than they expected.
This story, however, did not begin with Maldonado's pregnancy. Brown and Maldonado have known each other nearly 14 years, having met as 16-year-olds in high school. As classmates in Bartlesville's alternative education program, they dated off and on for nearly 11 years. During that time, Brown and Maldonado had both married and divorced other people. Maldonado had two children by her first marriage, Brown had a daughter from his.
Sometime in the late 2000s, they began dating again and Brown decided to propose to Maldonado, and she accepted. By December of 2009, she was pregnant. Soon after, she sent him a text message telling him she wanted to break up.
“It was all text messages,” he said, “because she didn't want to talk to me.”
Brown said he did not understand why she wanted to break up and that she was not clear in her reasons. But because they had dated off and on for so long, he said, “I just thought we could repair our relationship and get back together. We had done that a lot, so I thought we could do it again.”
Dusten Brown with daughter Veronica in her pink bedroom
Instead, she texted Brown asking him to sign his “rights” over to her. Initially, Brown said he was under the impression that she simply wanted full custody. At no time, he said, did she ever mention that she was thinking of giving their child up for adoption. He is adamant that had he known what her plans were, he would've acted on the spot.
“I thought she wanted full custody, but that I would still be a part of my child's life,” he said. “I was going to war. I didn't know what was going to happen in Iraq, or even if I was going to come back home alive. So I texted her back and said okay.”
Thinking that Maldonado needed time, Brown said he sent the text message and gave Maldonado her space. In his mind, they were simply in another “off” period, yet he remained hopeful that they would eventually work things out.
This was not to be. Four months after Veronica's birth, and six days before Brown was scheduled to deploy for Iraq, he received a message from Maldonado's lawyer that he needed to come to Bartlesville, Okla., to sign “some paperwork.” Because he was leaving the country, he was in “lock down” at his Army base in Ft. Sill and was told he would not be allowed to make the five hour trip to sign the paperwork. After some wrangling with his superiors and the lawyers, he was given permission only to leave base and go to nearby Lawton to visit a local process server.
It was from the process server that Brown finally learned the whole truth: That his daughter had been born four months earlier; that Maldonado had not only signed her own rights away, but had also put the girl up for adoption, something to which he did not, nor would ever agree; and that the child had also been living in South Carolina for four months with people he considered strangers.
“It was like somebody stabbed me in the heart,” said Brown. “She's a good mother to her other two children, so it was shocking to me that she would just give our child away. As far as I'm concerned, she sold her child. But if she wasn't going to raise [Veronica], then I definitely wanted her.”
To Brown, it was clear that Maldonado, the Capobiancos and their lawyers had timed their legal ambush before his deployment in the hopes that Brown would simply fold and walk away. They were all, he said, mistaken. “That was never going to happen.”
“I went straight to the Judge Advocate General on base,” he said. “And they got me a lawyers in Bartlesville and South Carolina.”
In the meantime, Brown assigned power of attorney to his father and had his lawyers ask for a stay of adoption until his deployment in Iraq was over, which was granted. During that time, it became evident that Brown's rights as a tribal member and due process had not been followed, according to court documents. In their rush to push the adoption through under the radar, Maldonado, the Capobiancos and their attorneys had colluded to strip Brown of his parental rights outside the purview of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Instead of a legal termination hearing, as is provided for under the law even in non-ICWA cases, the plaintiffs zeroed in on that fateful text message. This became the focal point of the subsequent legal battle with the Capobiancos, who had spent a lot of money on the adoption, even giving Maldonado $10,000, over and above her medical expenses, according to court testimony. Their message to the world was clear: “He gave up his rights. He abandoned his daughter. He is a 'bad dad.'”
But as in most custody battles, things are not always as they seem.
Next Week: The battle for Baby Veronica begins as the Capobiancos dig in, while their lawyers and public relations team go viral.