A Charleston judge on Monday ordered the immediate transfer of 3-year-old Veronica to her adoptive parents and called for action from state and federal authorities after the girl’s birth father failed to appear for a court-ordered visit the day before.
The decree by Family Court Judge Daniel Martin suspended a transition plan intended to gradually re-introduce the toddler to Matt and Melanie Capobianco of James Island. It also requests assistance from Dusten Brown’s commanding officer as he finishes a 30-day training mission with the Army National Guard.
The order is one of the strongest actions in the custody dispute since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Brown wrongly got custody of the girl under the Indian Child Welfare Act. After the case was sent back to South Carolina courts, the Capobiancos’ adoption was finalized.
The girl, who turns 4 next month, lived with the couple for the first 27 months of her life.
Attempts to reach Shannon Jones of Charleston and John Nichols of Columbia, two of Brown’s attorneys in the state, were not successful.
The judge ordered both of the attorneys to divulge their personal knowledge of Veronica’s whereabouts and his plans not to follow the order. Last week, Jones released a statement from Brown that said he wouldn’t abide by a ruling he thought would harm his daughter.
Martin also asked Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to take “any lawful action” to find Veronica and return her to the Capobiancos. Wilson said late Monday afternoon that she was “discussing with law enforcement to determine the best way to proceed.”
The Capobiancos declined to comment.
The married pair and a state-certified adoption investigator were scheduled to meet with Veronica and Brown or his relatives for their first, four-hour visit Sunday afternoon. Court documents did not divulge the meeting’s location.
But Veronica and Brown did not show during the visitation window. Martin’s order said he suspended the rest of the transition plan because Veronica “is being unlawfully withheld from her lawful parents.”
A court with the Cherokee Nation, of which Brown is a member, had transferred custody of Veronica temporarily to Brown’s wife and his parents as he completes the National Guard training. The tribe has said that the guardianship setup prevented any immediate custody switch.
Chrissi Nimmo, assistant attorney general for the tribe, called it “disgusting” to imply any criminal wrongdoing by Brown, especially while he is in another state for military service. She said it was physically and legally impossible for him to comply.
The order required Brown or a temporary guardian to attend the visit.
“This is another ploy to paint Dusten as the ‘bad guy,’” Nimmo said. “It is especially appalling while he is serving his country.”
In his order Monday, Martin asked Brown or the people watching the child to show up in an Oklahoma court with Veronica “to assist in the enforcement of this order.”
“This court reserves exclusive and continuing jurisdiction in this matter to impose additional remedies and sanctions,” Martin added.
Attorneys have said that Brown still can challenge the adoption in Oklahoma, where Veronica has lived for the past 19 months. But as the South Carolina court reasserted its jurisdiction, experts said that bid seems less likely to succeed.
The U.S. Supreme Court also declined last week to step in.
The adoption order, which Martin finalized Wednesday, has been registered in district court in Nowata County, where Brown lives.
For the order to be enforced in Oklahoma, the court must confirm it. Brown has 20 days to challenge it. Nimmo declined to discuss how he might go about that.
Under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, he could argue that South Carolina didn’t have the authority to finalize the adoption. The act helps govern interstate custody disputes in 49 states.
But Brown appeared during adoption proceedings here in 2011 and never challenged the jurisdiction as the South Carolina courts ruled in his favor.
Now that the state courts have issued rulings against him, at least one expert said he will have trouble arguing against their authority.
Marianne Blair, a professor of family law and civil procedure at the University of Tulsa, Okla., College of Law, said it’s common practice for one state’s court to abide by a judgment of anther state’s court.
But Veronica’s case is rare, Blair warned: A child up for adoption is typically living in the state that decides custody. If tribal courts get involved, that could add another hiccup in the process, she said.
“In general, an adoption order is a judgment, so Oklahoma state courts have to enforce it,” Blair said. “I don’t see how he could challenge (South Carolina) now.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.