It is rare that a family law case makes it before the U.S. Supreme Court, but a recent decision is the exception. In Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, (133 S. Ct. 2552 ) the high court took on an adoption case from South Carolina. The case involved the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA). While family lawyers in some states may never see an adoption involving the ICWA, those in New York deal with it with some regularity.
In Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, the birth mother (a non-Indian) and the child’s biological father, a member of the Cherokee Nation, ended their relationship when the birth mother was pregnant. After the child was born, the birth mother put the child up for adoption through an agency and a non-Indian South Carolina couple was selected as the adoptive parents.
Although the biological father signed documents relinquishing his parental rights, he later filed for custody of the child. It needs to be noted that the biological father had never had custody of the child up to that point, and he did not provide any financial assistance to the child’s mother during the pregnancy and the first four months after birth.
The child had lived with her adoptive parents from shortly after she was born until she was two years old. At that time, after trial, the South Carolina Family Court denied the adoption petition and awarded the biological father custody, holding that the ICWA prohibited the involuntary termination of parental rights unless “active efforts” have been made to prevent the breakup of the Indian family, and that had his rights been terminated, the ICWA Indian-oriented adoption preferences would apply.
The Family Court concluded the adoptive parents failed to meet their burden under the ICWA, which required them to prove that the child would suffer serious emotional or physical injury should the biological father have custody. The Family Court decision was affirmed by the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding:
• Since the biological father had never had custody of the child, the South Carolina courts’ reliance on the requirement under ICWA that the adoptive parents had to prove that “continued custody” would cause serious emotional or physical harm to the child was misplaced.
• The ICWA requirement to provide services to prevent breakup of the Indian family did not apply because the Indian parent had never had a relationship with the child.
• The ICWA adoption-preferences were inapplicable because no alternative party had legally sought to adopt the child.
On remand, the South Carolina Supreme Court rejected the biological father’s motion to remand the matter to the Family Court to address “new issues,” and, stating that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision provided “clear import” to provide finality in adoptions, remanded this case to the Family Court for the prompt entry of an order approving and finalizing Adoptive Couple’s adoption of Baby Girl, thereby terminating the parental rights of the biological father, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 2013 Lexis 176 (2013).
Sara Stout Ashcraft is a partner in Ashcraft, Franklin, Young & Peters LLP. She concentrates her practice in the areas of matrimonial and family law.