After the Supreme Court decided against a biological father in the so-called “Baby Veronica” case two months ago, I found myself worried not just for the family in the case, but for adoption in general. Adoption is riddled with misunderstanding and the mainstream media tends to exacerbate the problem rather than clarifying.
Now Veronica’s father has failed to return her to the adoptive couple that won the Supreme Court case, the father has been arrested, paid his bail and is currently somewhere unknown, presumably with his daughter. Now the would-be adoptive parents are using language like “holding her captive” and claiming to “fear for her safety and well-being,” though Veronica has been in her father’s custody, happy, and healthy, for close to two years.
This case has been rife with misunderstanding, and its high profile can only lead to more confusion among people not personally knowledgeable about adoption. Rather than leap into an argument for what I believe ought to be the case’s outcome, I want to focus here on clarifying what I see as three major misunderstandings the coverage of this case has perpetuated:
1. Misunderstanding of how legal adoption works
2. Misunderstanding of the ICWA and its purpose
3. Misunderstanding of what is in the “best interest” of children
First, the would-be adoptive parents of Veronica (no longer a baby) knew that this adoption was questionable from an early date after Veronica’s placement with them. While Veronica was still a young infant, it became clear that the adoption was not perhaps, legal or likely to be finalized because of the father’s interest in parenting her.
But importantly, the adoption was not yet final at that time. So in spite of headlines declaring that Veronica was “adopted” at birth, she was not. In my long experience of adoption study, I have never, ever heard of an adoption being final “at birth.” Babies may be placed with prospective adoptive families at birth, but adoptions typically take about six months to become final, and these six months include follow-up visits from social workers and legal work at court.
Veronica’s hopeful adoptive parents were indeed caring for her as their daughter in her infancy, but she was not legally theirs yet.
Second, the law the father has used to fight this adoption placement (which happened against his will and most likely without his full understanding, depending on who you believe in the reports, and I believe him), the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), is a matter of American Indian sovereignty, not of racial identity, as the press has widely misled us to understand.
The ICWA was enacted as a correction to and a protection against the all-but kidnapping (sometimes, indeed, literal kidnapping) of American Indian children and their placement in white families or (more often) “boarding schools” or other institutions that basically forced them to assimilate to white culture and cut them off from their heritage and communities.
The ICWA gives a tribe legal sovereignty over where its children in need are placed for care. Typically there is a hierarchy in which immediate family members are first, extended families are next, any tribal member is next, any American Indian is next and last, after these are exhausted -- and only with the tribe’s approval -- an Indian child can be placed outside an Indian home.
This hierarchy was hardly exhausted in Veronica’s case. In fact, her own father, as soon as he knew she was being adopted by out-of-state strangers, wanted to parent her.
Third, there is a problem in this case that comes up in adoption in general, even when there is no bitter custody battle. Veronica (again, not a baby) is bound to develop her own perspective on it all. And what is going to be best for her overall healthy development as a person?
To me, the answer is obvious. When a biological parent is ready, willing and able to raise a child he clearly loves, and has a two-year track record of doing just that, and doing it well, there is absolutely no excuse for moving her from his home to the home of out-of-state strangers who claim her based on an at-risk hopeful adoption placement that they knew was problematic since Veronica was an infant, and before her adoption was final.
Would it be heart-rending to give up a baby you had been caring for as your own for three or four months? I have no doubt of this. I am an adoptive mother myself and both my children were placed in my care at birth. Legally final adoptions or not, they felt very much like my babies -- no, they indeed were my babies -- the minute I held them each for the first time.
Is it okay to essentially steal someone else’s baby because you love her? No. Nor is it a particularly loving thing to do.
I still maintain that as soon as her prospective adoptive parents discovered the legal and interpersonal complications of this case, they should have handed Veronica (then an actual baby who might have had enough resilience to thrive in spite of the disruption) to her father and wished them all well. Would that have been hard? Absolutely. But if we are going to romanticize the relinquishment of babies to adoption as a “loving, selfless” sacrifice on the part of birth parents (and we do, all the time) why is it that these hopeful adoptive parents shouldn’t be expected to do the same with grace?
A legal trick is not what should decide this case -- as in: when did Veronica’s father sign away his rights and did he know what he was doing? A decision about which adults ought to have more rights is not what should decide this case. What should decide this case is Veronica’s right to her father.
“Best interest” should not be about which parent lives in the better neighborhood, has the better school to offer or takes the most expensive vacations. If that were the grounds for deciding where children should be, would you (if you are a parent) be allowed to keep yours if your wealthiest friend took a shine to them and decided to sue you for custody?
If we can agree that people of any socio-economic class who provide for their children adequately and lovingly deserve to raise them in their own families and communities, we must look elsewhere to decide where a child should be when a contest like this comes along. And when I listen to adopted people (who are no longer babies), they tend to say that they have a right to their biological heritage when it is available.
Adoption disrupts families. No matter how loving and stable the new family, the original family is forever broken. This should be prevented whenever possible. A child with an enthusiastic, loving and fit parent has no reason to be adopted.
Veronica has known her father as her father now, for two years. She will be four years old next month. She has a right, not only to the stable family she has known for probably, all of her conscious life, but to the biological connections that are available to her.
Importantly, Veronica is not a baby anymore and from here on out, she will do nothing but grow in knowledge and understanding of what is happening to her. If her adoptive parents end up with custody, I hope they are ready to answer an angry teenager when she googles herself and asks them, “Why did you take me from my daddy?”
I find it hard to swallow that “we love you” will be enough for her.
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