Toddler's custody lies with top court

Supporters of Matt and Melanie Capobianco traveled to Columbia to show their support and tell passersby about the custody battle for 2-year-old Veronica.

COLUMBIA — Adults in suits met behind closed doors Tuesday at the S.C. Supreme Court to argue over who will raise a curly-haired 2-year-old girl.

A family court judge in Charleston ordered on New Year’s Eve that James Island residents Matt and Melanie Capobianco turn over their adoptive daughter to her biological father, Oklahoma resident Dusten Brown.

Brown, who is part Cherokee, filed for paternity and custody four months after Veronica’s birth, and successfully argued his case under the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law designed to preserve Native American families.

The Capobiancos requested that the state’s highest court hear their case, and the toddler’s future now rests with the five justices.

Court officials closed the hearing to the public, and all parties in the case remain under a gag order. That didn’t stop about 20 supporters of the Capobiancos from wearing T-shirts in Veronica’s favorite color, purple, and the message: “Bring V Home.” They carried signs: “Equal Rights for All Children,” “Stop the Misuse of ICWA” and “Bring Veronica Home.”

Sumter resident Debbie Anderson came out because she, too, fought for her three adoptive children under the Indian Child Welfare Act from 2008 to 2009 and won. Hearing about the Capobiancos’ case made her relive those late nights spent researching the law, she said.

“So many people have said they need to forget about her and move on, but that’s just not possible,” Anderson said. “This is not something you ever expect to be involved in.”

Ana Wojtach came for her friends, the Capobiancos, and for her daughter, who became friends with Veronica. Now, 2-year-old Rylie asks about her buddy when she sees pictures or video of Veronica on television.

“She says ‘hello’ and ‘buh-bye,’ but we taught her to say, ‘See you soon,’ whenever she sees Veronica,” Wojtach said.

They shared their message on laminated cards with anyone walking and driving by who stopped to ask, “Who’s Veronica?” The group spotted Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin along the way and gave him a “Save Veronica” card too.

“I’m glad you all are speaking up for Veronica, exercising your rights to free speech,” he told them.

The Supreme Court heard 15 minutes of arguments from attorneys for the Capobiancos, who brought Veronica home from Oklahoma in 2009. Then they heard 15 minutes from attorneys for Brown.

The Capobiancos’ lawyers then took five minutes to make additional remarks. Justices could ask questions along the way, so the hearing lasted more than an hour and a half.

Before leaving the courthouse, Melanie Capobianco said, “We’re very thankful the Supreme Court allowed this to be heard.”

Her husband added, “We’re very hopeful.”

Their attorneys declined to comment.

Brown, a former serviceman, wore his Army dress uniform to the hearing. He slipped out the back of the courthouse with his attorney and directly into a sport utility vehicle with the aid of court security officers. They offered no comment.

His attorney, Shannon Jones, said later that she could not speak because, legally, she was bound to confidentiality.

The group of Capobianco supporters huddled into a tight circle and prayed together before splitting up to go home, letting their signs hang for the first time all afternoon.

Jessica Munday, a close friend and organizer, told the group, “Keep them in case we need them to go to Washington, D.C.”

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or allysonjbird.