Post and Courier
September 30, 2014

Financial sanctions against Veronica’s birth father, tribe considered as attorney calls for truce

Posted: 09/25/2013 11:15 a.m.
Updated: 09/25/2013 06:43 p.m.
By Andrew Knapp

It took Dusten Brown seven weeks to acknowledge a Charleston judge’s adoption order and relinquish custody of his 4-year-old biological daughter.

Until they welcomed Veronica back into their lives Monday, the James Island couple who adopted her, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, stayed in Oklahoma as they waited for courts there to force Brown to comply.

Whether Brown and the American Indian tribe he belongs to should be responsible for the Capobiancos’ expenses during that time was one topic of discussion when attorneys met Wednesday in a downtown Charleston courtroom, according to Lori Alvino McGill of Washington, a lawyer for the Capobiancos who did not attend the hearing. The bill could end up being thousands of dollars, though the exact amount is not yet known.

Charleston County Family Court Judge Daniel Martin did not immediately rule on the issue. The hearing was closed to the public, and the Capobiancos did not attend.

To some of Brown’s supporters, the move added insult to injury after he lost custody of the girl he cared for during the past 20 months. But Shannon Jones, his attorney in Charleston who attended the hearing but would not discuss it, called for a courtroom truce.

“I really think that the best thing for everybody is to tell their lawyers to go away,” she told The Post and Courier. “Everybody should put down their swords and move on and begin to heal. As long as there is litigation, their relationship is never going to improve.

“Veronica is the one who will reap the most benefit from that.”

Also still pending is the felony charge of custodial interference that Brown faces because he didn’t immediately comply with Martin’s order in early August. But Oklahoma’s governor, Mary Fallin, indicated through a spokesman an intention to abandon her push for Brown to be jailed.

The Capobiancos still had not returned to the Lowcountry with their daughter. On Wednesday, reporters from news outlets nationwide accumulated outside their house, but the reunited family never showed up.

The lawyers

Several lawyers representing the Capobiancos, and Brown’s sole attorney in Charleston, Jones, attended Wednesday’s hearing to consider financial sanctions against Brown and the Cherokee Nation. The tribe and the father were parties in the adoption dispute.

In early September, about a month after he issued the arrest warrant, Martin called the South Carolina attorneys into court to discuss whether Brown and the tribe “should be held in civil contempt for their open defiance” of his order, Alvino McGill said.

“The parties didn’t have a choice about this hearing,” Alvino McGill said. “In other words, this is not something the Capobiancos or their attorneys initiated.”

Contrary to some reports, the courtroom action is not a lawsuit. The contempt discussions were borne out of the same case that started when the Capobiancos first tried to adopt Veronica four years ago.

When the adoption eventually was finalized in July and Brown didn’t give up Veronica, Alvino McGill said the judge had options to penalize the birth father and the tribe. Those included a hefty daily fine and jail time, she said.

The contempt proceeding is separate from the criminal charge Brown faces.

But Brown and the Cherokee Nation at last aided in the peaceful transfer of Veronica to the Capobiancos early this week, so fines and jail time are no longer options, Alvino McGill said.

“But the South Carolina court can still award attorney’s fees and other damages,” such as the couple’s costs in temporarily relocating to Oklahoma, Alvino McGill said, “for the period in which the party was in contempt.”

The attorneys are expected to take up the issue again. When that hearing will happen and whether Martin will preside over it were not immediately known.

James Fletcher Thompson, the Capobiancos’ primary attorney here, declined to comment, other than to say nothing significant resulted from the proceeding.

‘Back to normal’

As their attorneys’ courtroom skirmishes persisted, the Capobiancos and Veronica stayed out of the limelight Wednesday. But that didn’t stop reporters from television networks and local news stations from amassing outside their house. Some of them paced, sipped coffee and ground their cigarettes into the pavement.

“I haven’t slept in two days with all your bright lights, big city,” neighborhood resident Jeannie Wiggins yelled at them. “Just let the little girl come home in peace.”

In a statement the day before, the adoptive parents had asked the media and their supporters to respect their privacy during a “precious time with our daughter.” The couple had gotten custody of Veronica on Monday night, after Oklahoma’s high court cleared a path for their adoption decree to be enforced there.

“Our focus now is on healing and getting our life back to normal,” they said.

Jones, who has represented Brown since 2010, struck a similar tone.

As she walked into the courtroom Wednesday, she noted the cluster of attorneys for the Capobiancos in the hallway. One hailed from Washington.

“They’re all against me,” Jones remarked to a bailiff.

After she walked out, Jones said that visits and phone calls between the couple and Brown didn’t work out when he took custody of the girl in late 2011 under the Indian Child Welfare Act. The appeals that the Capobiancos filed, she said, made an amicable relationship difficult at the time.

Her client has no visitation rights under the South Carolina adoption order, but she said Brown was still hopeful to get future time with his biological daughter.

“But if we’re going to make that child the most important focus,” the lawyer said, “the lawyers need to move on.”

Christina Elmore contributed to this report. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.