High court eases path to Indian adoptions in Massachusetts

Adoption proceedings are always complicated, but this is especially true when a child who has some Native American ancestry is adopted by a family that doesn’t. That’s because a federal law called the “Indian Child Welfare Act” sets a very high bar for adoption in these cases.

The law was enacted by Congress in 1978 in response to a history of abusive child-welfare practices that often split up Indian families unnecessarily.

However, a new Supreme Court decision makes things a bit easier for non-Indian adoptive parents.

In that case, Dusten Brown of Oklahoma, a member of the Cherokee Nation, conceived a child with his girlfriend, Christy. The couple planned to marry, but split up during the pregnancy. Brown relinquished his parental rights to Christy in a text message. Christy then arranged for a South Carolina couple to adopt the child, and they took custody after the baby was born.

Once Brown learned of the adoption, though, he fought it in court. A South Carolina judge ruled that the adoption couldn’t go through because, under the federal law, Brown first had to be provided with services that could help him retain the child.

The couple appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. And that court sided with the adoptive parents, deciding that the federal law didn’t apply to protect a biological father such as Brown, who had abandoned the child before birth and had never had custody before contesting the adoption.

The court said that if the biological father of a child with some remote Indian ancestry could use the federal law as a “trump card” at the last minute to override an adoption that was in the child’s best interests, it would make it very difficult to place Indian children in adoptive families.

The case isn’t over, though – a South Carolina court must now decide whether staying with Brown or the adoptive parents is in the child’s best interests.