Charleston adoption hearing to weigh Veronica’s transition as U.S. Supreme Court ponders stepping in

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When opposing sides in the custody dispute over 3-year-old Veronica next gather in a downtown courtroom, possibly Wednesday, they might discuss a seven-day transition period that ends with her return to South Carolina.

Attorneys for Matt and Melanie Capobianco of James Island filed the five-page plan with the S.C. Supreme Court, which has ordered that the couple’s adoption of the girl be finalized.

It calls for Veronica’s gradual reintroduction to the family who said goodbye to her about 19 months ago when she went to live with her birth father in Oklahoma.

The process will last a week, according to the document, because a more prolonged transition could prompt greater anxiety among everyone involved.

The girl could become fearful, anxious and confused, the plan stated. It encourages the Capobiancos and Veronica’s father, Dusten Brown, to get along and reassure her that she’s returning to a family who will love her.

“This is the hardest part,” wrote Deena McMahon of St. Paul, Minn., a social worker who developed the plan. “Veronica must not believe she is being abandoned or rejected. She needs to feel she is gaining something and being welcomed.”

Judge Daniel Martin could hear the proposal at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in Charleston County Family Court. The S.C. Supreme Court asked the lower court last week to finalize the adoption.

The process could be delayed by Brown’s attempt to have the U.S. Supreme Court stop South Carolina from deciding Veronica’s custody. Chief Justice John Roberts asked that the Capobiancos respond to Brown’s request for a stay of judgment by 2 p.m. Friday.

Veronica has lived with Brown since he stopped the Capobiancos from adopting the toddler because of the Indian Child Welfare Act. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court said the ICWA didn’t apply to Brown, a Cherokee Nation member, because he hadn’t been in the child’s life.

In again taking up the case, South Carolina’s high court said a hearing to determine what’s in Veronica’s best interests could worsen the heartache for everyone involved, and it asked the Family Court to complete the adoption.

Brown’s request with the U.S. Supreme Court says the state court should consider competing adoption petitions that he and his family filed in Oklahoma because the ICWA still applies.

If the Capobiancos’ adoption proceeds, a custody switch likely would be contentious.

Shannon Jones, Brown’s Charleston attorney, called the transition plan “heartbreaking.” She took issue with portions that suggested the Capobiancos offer Veronica a cookie as a distraction during the ordeal. It also recommended that the couple talk about games she could play and videos she could watch at their South Carolina home.

“The only plan my client has is to do everything in his power to make certain his daughter’s best interests are respected,” Jones said. “Not only is it in her best interest to stay with her father, her family and her tribe, taking her away from them will certainly harm her.”

The Capobiancos would first communicate with Veronica through video calls. Brown would be encouraged to host a farewell celebration and show Veronica pictures of the Capobiancos.

During the transition week, the couple would spend a portion of the first few days with Veronica. Toward the end, she would spend the whole day, but Brown or another loved one could visit.

If any animosity develops between the Capobiancos and Brown, the transition should be sped up, the plan stated.

During her first year back in the Capobiancos’ home, Veronica’s contact with Brown would be limited. Calls through Skype or Apple’s Facetime would be recommended. He would be allowed to visit after six months, and she could stay with him overnight after a year.

Lori Alvino McGill, the Washington attorney for Veronica’s birth mother, said the plan was developed because of an abrupt custody switch in late 2011, when Veronica went to live with Brown. It was difficult to develop, Alvino McGill said, because no experts from the Capobiancos’ side were allowed to visit the girl.

“Any child in Veronica’s circumstances would experience some distress about such big changes in her life, and the point is that this time no one is minimizing that,” Alvino McGill said. “(The Capobiancos) have even offered quite generously to allow Brown and his family to remain a part of Veronica’s life.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.

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