Baby Veronica, who is the 4-year-old Cherokee girl at the center of a cross-country custody dispute, returned to her adoptive South Carolina parents Monday night at tribal headquarters in Oklahoma, representatives of her father and the Cherokee Nation told NBC News.
Dusten Brown, the biological father, said goodbye to Veronica at Jack Brown House, the tribal headquarters where they have been living in Tahlequah, and returned her to Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who had custody of Veronica for over the first two years of her life, the representatives said
A Cherokee County sheriff’s deputy and a Cherokee Nation marshal led Veronica to the nearby marshal’s building, where the handover took place as Brown and his wife, Robin, watched on from a nearby window. Both the Browns and the Capobiancos remain under a gag order, but friends and allies representing the two families confirmed the exchange.
Cherokee County Undersheriff Jason Chennault told NBC station KJRH of Tulsa, Okla., that the Capobiancos had already left the county. They were expected to head home to Charleston, S.C. Brown gave up custody Monday after the Oklahoma Supreme Court lifted a ruling keeping Veronica in the state while he tried to win permanent custody.
“She’s safely in her parents’ arms,” Jessica Munday, a friend who has served as a spokeswoman for the Capobiancos, said Monday night.
A spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation, Amanda Clinton, told NBC News that the exchange was highly emotional. Brown’s father, who would be Veronica’s grandfather, went into “medical distress” and was taken to a hospital to determine whether he had had a heart attack, Clinton said.
The story of how this came to be is a little complicated. In 2009, Brown, a member of the Army National Guard, signed paperwork to relinquish his parental rights because he was scheduled to deploy to Iraq. He believed his signature gave full custodial rights to Veronica’s mother, Christy Maldonado, from whom he had separated.
Instead, Maldonado, who isn’t Cherokee, put Veronica up for adoption, and the Capobiancos adopted her and raised her for 27 months. A South Carolina court eventually returned Veronica to Brown, her biological father, under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The act was established in 1978 in response to high rates of adoption of American Indian children by non-native families.
The dispute was fought for a long time in the court system, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in June that the act didn’t apply in Brown’s case.The state order keeping Veronica in Oklahoma was lifted after the latest round of custody negotiations broke down Monday.
Todd Hembree, the attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, said Brown “willfully cooperated with today’s order.” He called the transfer “peaceful and dignified.”
“Although this is not something any parent should ever have to do, we could not be more proud of the dignity and courage with which he carried himself,” Hembree said in a statement.
That doesn’t mean the fight is over, Hembree told The Tulsa World. The Cherokee Nation was prepared to litigate its contention that the dispute should be heard in tribal court, however, Brown decided it was in Veronica’s best interests to proceed with a “peaceful and respectful transfer,” he said. “We will assess our legal options in the morning. Is this over? I would say not.”
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