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State Adoption Laws vs the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act

State Adoption Laws vs. the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act

The story of Baby Veronica has been making headlines in the recent weeks following a transfer of the case from the South Carolina Supreme Court, to the United States Supreme Court, and the resulting United States Supreme Court decision overturning the ruling by the South Carolina courts.

In the case of Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl, Biological Father and Mother ended their relationship while Mother was pregnant.1 Biological Father chose to relinquish all parental rights to the baby before birth, provided no support to the Mother and child during the pregnancy and thereafter for four (4) months. For all intents and purposes, Father showed no interest in taking any responsibility in raising the child. Mother thereafter decided to put the child up for adoption, and chose Adoptive Couple as the adoptive parents. Adoptive Couple supported Mother throughout her pregnancy, were present in the delivery room when the child was born, and thereafter took Baby Veronica home with them from the hospital. Mother signed away her parental rights shortly after giving birth to Baby Veronica.

Adoptive Couple thereafter petitioned their home state of South Carolina to process the adoption legally. Similar to Indiana law, this required providing legal notice to the putative father, to which he could consent to the adoption or not consent.2, 3 Upon receiving notice, Father stated formally that he “did not consent” to the adoption, and petitioned for custody of Baby Veronica himself, invoking the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), because he was a member of the Cherokee Nation, and the child was 1.2% Native American.4

The ICWA was enacted in the 1970s to address a growing concern regarding practices of child welfare services that separated the Native American children from their families and tribes, with the intent to preserve the rich cultural heritage for the children of Native American families.

Approximately two (2) years after the Baby Veronica was born, the matter finally went to trial, and the trial court awarded custody to Father, finding that the ICWA would bar the Adoptive Couple from adopting the child. However, if Father was not a member of the Cherokee Nation, and the child was not Native American, under South Carolina state law, the Adoptive Couple would have prevailed. The South Carolina Supreme Court agreed with the trial court, and affirmed that Father should have custody. The Adoptive Couple appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court overturned the South Carolina decision, and found that the ICWA did not apply to this case because Father was never a custodial parent, the child was not being removed from his custodial care, and he had essentially relinquished all parental rights before the child’s birth. The United States Supreme Court looked at the intent behind the passage of the ICWA, stating that it was to protect Native American children from being removed from their families, homes and tribes, none of which applied to Father.

We hope that this blog post has been helpful in understanding the Federal ICWA and how it interacts and interrelates to State laws. Every case is different, and it is recommended that you consult an attorney to determine the best course of action to achieve your goals in your specific case. Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. practices throughout the state of Indiana. This blog post was written by attorney, Lori Schmeltzer.


  1. Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl, 133 S. Ct. 2552 (2013)
  2. I.C. § 31-19-9-1
  3. I.C. § 31-19-2.5-3
  4. https://uscode.house.gov/download/pls/25C21.txt
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Ciyou & Dixon, P.C., is a law firm located in Indianapolis, Indiana. We serve clients in six core practice areas: family lawappellate practicefirearms lawgeneral practicepersonal injury and criminal law.

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Based in Indianapolis and founded in 1995, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. is a niche law firm focused on successfully dealing with the complexities of divorce, high-conflict child custody and family law. Known for their ability to solve extremely complex situations with high quality work and responsiveness, Ciyou & Dixon will guide you every step of the way. The family law attorneys at Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. will help you precisely identify your objectives and the means to reach your desired result. In addition, this practice focus is augmented by the firm's other three core areas, namely appellate advocacy, civil practice, and firearms law. Life is uncertain. Be certain of your counselSM.

Indianapolis Divorce Attorneys, Ciyou & Dixon, P.C. of Indianapolis, Indiana, offers legal services for Indianapolis, Zionsville, Noblesville, Carmel, Avon, Anderson, Danville, Greenwood, Brownsburg, Geist, Fortville, McCordsville, Muncie, Greenfield, Westfield, Fort Wayne, Fishers, Bloomington, Lafayette, Marion County, Hamilton County, Hendricks County, Allen County, Delaware County, Morgan County, Hendricks County, Boone County, Vigo County, Johnson County, Hancock County, and Tippecanoe County, Indiana.