South Carolina couple’s attorney says Oklahoma tribe never expressed interest before Desaray’s birth
The American Indian tribe fighting for custody of an infant from Oklahoma never showed such an interest before she was born in May, an attorney for the Columbia-area couple trying to adopt the girl said Friday.
In a custody dispute that has some drawing comparisons to 3-year-old Veronica’s case, attorney Raymond Godwin of Greenville said the couple followed the law. They didn’t take the baby home until more than a month after her birth, the attorney said, brushing aside accusations that Desaray was whisked away for a quick adoption.
The couple returned to the Palmetto State only because the potential adoptive father’s job was threatened by his absence, he said.
The girl is now 4 months old, and attorneys for the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma continued to insist Friday that she was secreted away without proper notification.
Godwin also handled the initial adoption proceedings for Matt and Melanie Capobianco of James Island, who found Veronica through Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an agency Godwin has been associated with. Godwin’s wife ran Carolina Hope Christian Adoption Agency, which was absorbed into Nightlight in 2009.
Despite criticism from attorneys in South Carolina and Oklahoma, as well as from Desaray’s birth father, Godwin had been silent on the new dispute until Friday, when he released a statement to The Post and Courier. He declined an interview with the newspaper.
The couple, who live in Richland County, are trying to finalize their adoption of the girl through court filings in Oklahoma and South Carolina. But an Oklahoma judge ordered this week that Desaray should be returned to that state.
“Please be assured that she is well cared for in a loving, adoptive home,” Godwin said. “The (prospective) adoptive couple have prayed for several years for a child and have loved this baby as an answer to their prayers.”
Veronica’s and Desaray’s cases bear similarities and involve some of the same attorneys. The Capobiancos’ fight for Veronica remained unresolved Friday as the Oklahoma Supreme Court considered judges’ decisions ordering her return to the Lowcountry.
Desaray’s birth father, Jeremy Simmons, wanted to marry the would-be mother after she realized she was pregnant. But she refused, according to his Charleston attorney. They never were engaged.
The woman didn’t want to be involved with Simmons, and she gave the girl up for adoption, the attorney said.
The Richland County couple contacted the woman early this year, Godwin said. Because of her and her family’s membership in the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, Godwin said tribal officials were asked at least three months before Desaray’s birth for an assurance that they wouldn’t fight the adoption.
The Indian Child Welfare Act gives other tribal members preference in placing an Indian child who is up for adoption. Veronica’s birth father, a Cherokee Nation citizen, used the federal law to get custody of the girl, though the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that courts had wrongly applied it to his case.
Godwin said Oklahoma attorneys for his clients had communicated by telephone, letter and email with the Shawnees and their lead counsel, Charles Tripp of Owasso.
No one objected to the adoption, he said, though his statement did not say whether he received the written promise that the tribe wouldn’t intervene.
Attempts to contact Tripp on Friday were not successful, though the tribe’s attorney in South Carolina disputed Godwin’s account.
Also working in the Richland County couple’s favor, Godwin said, is their own ties to a tribe. The husband’s great-grandmother, he said, was a full-blooded Cherokee.
But on June 20 — 37 days after Desaray was born — the couple brought her to South Carolina without approval of an interstate compact, a uniform law that affords children the legal protections of their birth state when they are placed with an adoptive family out of state.
Godwin said they came home “under dire circumstances” because the husband needed to return to his job. They disclosed that information to a family court in South Carolina, which granted them temporary custody, he added.
Godwin said that both the tribe and Simmons were given written notice of the court proceedings but that none of them appeared or contacted a judge here.
In his statement, he deflected what he called “unfortunate misstatements” by critics that he completes 50 adoptions of Indian children yearly. It’s doubtful, he said, that he’s done 50 in his 20-year career as an adoption attorney.
Shannon Jones of Charleston, the attorney for the Shawnee tribe and for Veronica’s birth father, Dusten Brown, said Friday that the tribe never took a pass on challenging the adoption.
It was the maternal grandmother who learned about the adoption and spoke out, she said. The birth father, Simmons, and the tribe then filed papers in June.
Though she’s not related to him, the grandmother, who is also a tribal member, supports Simmons’ efforts to get custody of Desaray, according to Jones. He does not have Indian blood and has never met the girl.
Because of Desaray’s heritage, the ICWA still applies to her. But Simmons does not need the ICWA, Jones argued, and should get custody under Oklahoma law because of the dubious circumstances surrounding her removal.
The Cherokee Nation, to which Veronica’s father belongs, has more than 300,000 enrolled citizens. The Shawnee tribe has more than 3,000 — making them nearly extinct, Jones said.
“The tribes have a strong interest in maintaining their citizens and their children,” she said. “But Dusten Brown and Jeremy Simmons very much just want their daughters, period.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.