The Adoption Crunch, the Christian Right, and the Challenge to Indian Sovereignty

About Kathryn Joyce

While the demand for adoptable babies is increasing in the United States—driven in large part by evangelical Christians—the number of babies available for adoption is declining. Adoption agencies are now targeting tribal nations as a potential new source of babies to adopt, and forming alliances that threaten to undermine the sovereignty of Native American nations.

photo credit: The Post and Courier

photo credit: The Post and Courier

**This article appears in the Winter 2014 issue of The Public Eye magazine.**

On September 23, 2013, a child-custody battle that was nearly five years in the making came to its conclusion in Oklahoma when an Army veteran from the Cherokee Nation, Dusten Brown, handed over his daughter, Veronica, to Matt and Melanie Capobianco, a White couple from South Carolina who had raised her for the first two years of her life.1

Brown gained custody of four-year-old Veronica in December 2011, after a South Carolina court ruled that the adoption process had violated federal Indian law. Brown’s attorneys also argued that Christina Maldonado—Brown’s ex-fiancé and Veronica’s biological mother, who is Latina—had deliberately concealed plans to let the Capobiancos adopt her.2  As the custody decision was reversed following a 2013 Supreme Court ruling,3 and Veronica was tucked into the Capobiancos’ car to return to South Carolina, the scene was broadcast across national and social media to two polarized camps. Brown’s supporters condemned the Capobiancos as baby-snatchers stealing an Indian child from her loving father, as tens of thousands of Native children had been systematically removed from their families in decades past. The Capobiancos’ supporters condemned Brown as a deadbeat dad who had given up his rights long ago and was hiding behind an obsolete law.

These battle lines, which had helped turn the case into headline news for much of the past year, reflected deeper tensions that involved a growing conservative Christian adoption movement and a global pattern of falling adoption numbers. The Baby Veronica case also provided a glimpse into a broad, high-stakes battle that pits the explosive growth in the demand for adoptable babies in the United States against legal protections for Indian parents. Some advocates for Indians fear that the assault on those protections—established relatively recently in response to a long history of White “civilizing” projects—is also evolving into a broader attack on the fundamental sovereignty of Native American nations.

Going Over the Adoption Cliff

In a phenomenon that has been described as the “adoption cliff,” international adoptions to the United States have fallen by nearly two-thirds over the last decade, dropping from an all-time high of nearly 23,000 in 2004 to under 9,000 in 2012.4  And the number is still falling.5

Domestic infant adoptions began dropping exponentially after the legalization of abortion and increased acceptance of single motherhood in the 1970s.6 International adoptions have followed suit more recently, in the wake of scandals that have shed light on systemic problems with adoption procedures in several countries. In Guatemala,7 for example, strong Western demand for adoptable infants led to an influx of foreign cash, and unethical actors procured a supply—sometimes using coercion, payments, or outright kidnapping.8 Other countries, such as Russia, have closed their adoption programs recently as a form of political retaliation (and with professed outrage over real concerns about adoptees’ post-adoption welfare in the United States).9 As a result, a number of adoption agencies—including some of the largest—have been bankrupted or forced to close.10

The falling number of children available for adoption has not coincided with a drop in the number of prospective U.S. adoptive parents. In fact, that number seems only to have grown, due in part to the phenomenal rise of the Christian adoption movement. As I discussed at length in The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption,11  a Christian adoption movement took hold among evangelicals over the past decade. Led by religious leaders like the megachurch pastor Rick Warren,12 and by denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention,13 evangelicals have been encouraged to see adoption as a way to live out their faith and their pro-life principles. Although the U.S. government does not track adoption by religious affiliation, it is likely that tens of thousands of Christian prospective adoptive parents have responded to the call to adopt.

The movement hit a predictable bottleneck as long lines of would-be adoptive parents met the reality of a declining international adoption market. Among some adoption advocates, this bottleneck—and the frustration it caused among potential adoptive parents—has been described as the mobilizing force needed to compel reforms that make adoption easier.14

Craig Juntunen, founder of the adoption-advocacy group Both Ends Burning, told me that the “chokepoint” of frustrated prospective adoptive parents butting up against an adoption market in decline could become a strategic advantage for the adoption lobby, sparking popular outrage that could help pass adoption-friendly legislation. His organization hopes to simplify adoption regulations and increase the international adoption rate to the United States fivefold.

“So we’ve created this culture of adoption, and now more and more people want to participate in adoption and are left frustrated because they’re denied the opportunity to pursue what they want to pursue,” Juntunen explained. “Well, that’s where social change happens … This culture of adoption, and this idea that more and more families are going to be raising their hands, that’s going to be the catalyst for change.”15

While evangelical Christians aren’t the only would-be adoptive parents hoping to adopt a child—nor the only constituency that can be willfully blind to adoption’s ethical complexities—they are increasingly the face of the organized pro-adoption movement. And the initiatives made to address falling adoption numbers tend to reflect primarily their perspectives.

Domestically, adoption-advocacy groups and sympathetic politicians have called for state-level reforms that would make the adoption process “better, cheaper and faster” for adoptive parents.16 In Texas, they propose to do so by demanding that women seeking abortions undergo hours of mandatory adoption counseling.17 In Ohio, it’s by sharply reducing the time period during which biological fathers like Dusten Brown can register their paternity in order to contest an adoption.18

In September 2013, adoption advocates introduced an adoption bill in the U.S. Senate, Children in Families First (CHIFF).19 Critics believe it is an attempt to revive the failing adoption industry with an injection of hundreds of millions of federal dollars.20

Adoption-reform critics note that CHIFF follows on the heels of other, similar attempts in recent years to address the falling adoption supply through U.S. legislation. A previous bill, the Families for Orphans Act,21  was introduced in 2009 and received much publicity after the 2010 Haiti earthquake highlighted the challenges of international adoption. Adoption agencies received tens of thousands of inquiries about adopting Haitian children in the wake of the earthquake, and a media fixation on U.S. adoptive parents threatened to overwhelm coverage of the disaster itself.22

The Families for Orphans Act would have created a special office dedicated to overseeing international adoptions—an office that its cosponsors suggest could have facilitated tens of thousands of additional adoptions from Haiti. It also would have provided development aid to countries that agree to U.S. standards of providing permanent care for children, including through their openness to international adoption.23

Adoption-reform groups, including Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform24  and Ethica,25  worried that the bill would use financial aid to help determine other countries’ child-welfare policies, cast children who have living parents as orphans available for adoption, and favor international adoption to U.S. parents over local solutions.26

Though the bill ultimately failed, the campaign on its behalf represented the efforts of a broad coalition of interest groups that continues to work on this issue. The law was drafted by representatives from adoption-lobby groups and adoption agencies,27 publicized by Christian and secular adoption groups, and spearheaded by a bipartisan group of legislators.28

When CHIFF appeared last fall, critics noted the lack of voices from adoptees or meaningful contributions from birth families.29 They argued that the adoption industry was once again rallying behind legislation that would save their faltering business model.30 As of mid-January, the bill had more than 50 cosponsors in Congress and had attracted wide ranging bipartisan support, from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN).31 Religious organizations supporting it include Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.

The dramatic struggle over Baby Veronica introduced a relatively new element to this story of rising demand and decreasing supply: how do adoptions from Indian Country factor into the equation?

Baby Veronica

The case was complicated. In late 2008, Dusten Brown and Christina Maldonado got engaged, and shortly thereafter, Maldonado became pregnant. Brown pressed Maldonado to marry quickly, but she soon broke off the relationship by text message. Brown responded that he wouldn’t support the child if they didn’t marry. In an exchange that would inform much of the legal wrangling to come, Maldonado later texted Brown to ask if he would rather pay child support or relinquish parental rights to her. Brown replied that he would relinquish parental rights.32

Brown’s threats to withdraw support unless Maldonado agreed to marry are inexcusable, but the situation wasn’t limited to just mother versus father. A third party was involved: the adoption system itself. Though Brown didn’t know it, Maldonado’s text messages were likely a deliberate part of laying the framework for an adoption, which is regulated at the state level. In states that are eager to make adoption as easy as possible for potential adoptive parents, there is often little regulation of how biological fathers are notified of an impending adoption and—many such fathers say—little opportunity for them to protect their right to parent their children. In some states, a text message like Maldonado’s is often considered sufficient warning that the child will be adopted.

The Baby Veronica struggle introduced a relatively new element to the story of rising demand and decreasing supply: how do adoptions from Indian Country factor into the equation?

In Utah, which is notorious33  for its intentionally difficult procedure to register paternity—and for its record of agencies bringing expectant mothers to deliver children under the state’s laxer laws34—a 1995 statute holds that “by virtue of the fact that he has engaged in a sexual relationship with a woman,” an unmarried man is considered “on notice” that an adoption may occur and that the burden of protecting his parental rights is entirely on him, relieving agencies of the need to seek consent.35 South Carolina’s laws, where birthfathers do not need to legally sign off on adoptions, seems to follow close behind.36

Unbeknownst to Brown, Maldonado had begun consulting with a private adoption attorney in South Carolina, Raymond Godwin, about relinquishing her child for adoption, and she chose the Capobiancos as the adoptive parents.

Given the chilling effect of the lawsuit now leveled against Dusten Brown and the Cherokee Nation, other tribes may feel pressured not to fight back.

Godwin is closely associated with a private adoption agency, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, where his wife, Laura Beauvais-Godwin, is head of South Carolina’s state office. The agency helped with the adoption, compiling a “birthfamily” report on Brown and Maldonado.37 Like the Christian adoption movement, Nightlight’s own literature was infused with religious language, describing “intercountry adoption as a beautiful act that glorifies God, unites families, and enhances cultures.”38

In an investigation, the (Charleston, SC) Post and Courier found that past clients of Nightlight have complained that the agency uses heavy-handed and coercive tactics to convince expectant mothers to relinquish babies for adoption.39 And a guardian ad litem later assigned to Baby Veronica—a woman who reportedly had an ongoing professional relationship with Nightlight—forcefully argued to Brown’s family that the Capobiancos were better suited as parents because they could afford private school tuition, while, she allegedly argued, Native American culture offered only the advantages of “free lunches and free medical care and that they did have their little get-togethers and their little dances.”40

Maldonado initially sought to omit Brown’s identity from adoption paperwork, fearing his status as a Cherokee tribal member would impede the adoption.41 Adoptions of Indian children are governed by the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law that gives tribes a say in Indian children’s custody. Enacted in 1978, ICWA is intended to help keep Native children within their families by regulating child-custody procedures for children who are eligible to be registered members of recognized tribes.42

Maldonado’s lawyer (hired for her by the Capobiancos) ended up obscuring Brown’s identity and sending pre-adoption forms to the Cherokee tribe, as ICWA mandates, but misspelled Brown’s name and misrepresented his age, so that the Nation didn’t recognize him as a member.43 On a state form that later allowed Veronica to leave Oklahoma with the Capobiancos, she was identified as Hispanic—her mother’s ethnic heritage—rather than Native American.44

Four months after Veronica was born—and less than a week before Brown deployed for Iraq—Maldonado’s lawyer requested that he sign some paperwork. Brown claims that he thought he was signing over full custody to Maldonado while he was in Iraq. But what he actually signed were adoption relinquishment papers. When Brown realized his mistake and tried to take back the papers, the server threatened him with arrest.45

After Brown returned from Iraq, he successfully regained custody of Veronica in December 2011, when the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the adoption process hadn’t followed ICWA guidelines. But when the Capobiancos came to deliver Veronica, they didn’t come alone. With the help of Jessica Munday, a friend of the family who worked for a PR firm, their lawyer had turned the case into a cause.46

The Supreme Court, The ICWA, and The Lost Birds

Munday would go on to start a (now defunct) website as well as a Facebook group and “Save Veronica” petition drive. All were part of a campaign that took larger aim at ICWA for what it described as its ability to break up happy homes on the grounds of old, race-based laws. The Save Veronica campaign collected tens of thousands of signatures demanding that Congress revise the statute,47 and an increasing number of adoption advocates picked up the case. Andrea Poe, a columnist at the right-wing Washington Times, argued that “Native American children who need permanent homes and families are at the highest risk if South Carolina’s interpretation of the Indian Child Welfare Act stands.”48

The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court as Adoptive Parents v. Baby Girl, where a lead attorney fighting Brown’s custody claim argued that Veronica’s own right to equal protection had been violated by ICWA because the statute itself was unconstitutional.49 In their ruling, the justices didn’t go so far as to agree, but they declared that ICWA didn’t apply to Veronica’s adoption, returning the case to the lower courts.50 Within a month, a South Carolina court finalized the Capobiancos’ adoption of Veronica and demanded that she be returned.51

Brown’s and the Cherokee Nation’s lawyers tried, without success, to secure a hearing in tribal courts or negotiate visitation with the Capobiancos. In late September 2013, having exhausted all options, Brown’s lawyer relinquished Veronica to the Capobiancos in front of a national audience.

In early November, the Capobiancos filed a lawsuit against Brown and the Cherokee Nation for more than one million dollars in legal expenses for their formerly pro-bono team.52 To Indian advocates, it was more than insult added to injury. It read as a warning to other tribes that might contest adoptions of tribal children. “In our minds,” said Terry Cross, director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), “this is an attempt to have a chilling effect against any Indian parents or Indian tribe who would keep their child.”53

Screen Shot 2014-02-20 at 3.31.03 PM

Students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded by
Richard Pratt, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Extreme as that assessment might sound, it is rooted in a long, painful record of abuses inflicted by Whites on Native Americans, who remember all too well the history the Indian Child Welfare Act was designed to address. Beginning in the late 1800s, Native children were removed en masse from their families to boarding schools as part of a “civilizing” project that meant to assimilate them into White U.S. culture by separating them from any aspects of tribal culture. In the words of the first school’s founder, Richard Pratt, their mission was to “Kill the Indian . . . and save the man.”54

In the 1950s and 1960s, boarding schools gave way to the Indian Adoption Project, which removed children from Native homes and placed them in foster care or adoptive homes. By the 1970s, an astonishing one-quarter to one-third of all Indian children in the United States had been taken away from their families, and 85-90 percent of them were placed in non-Indian families.  The generation came to be known as the “Lost Birds.”55

“There were literally American Indian communities where there were no children,” said Terry Cross. As the broader Native American community realized what was happening and began to collect testimony for Congress, other stories emerged: of Native American women pressured into relinquishing babies for adoption just after birth while still under the effects of anesthesia, and of women waking up to find that their babies were gone and, sometimes, that they had themselves been sterilized.56

 Beginning in the late 1800s, Native children were removed from their families en masse to boarding schools. In the words of the first school’s founder, Richard Pratt, their mission was to “Kill the Indian . . . and save the man.”

The abuses aren’t all historical. Cross recalled a case from four years ago, in which a Native mother from Minnesota was flown to Utah to deliver her child and then given adoption papers to sign while recovering from the anesthesia of a C-section delivery. When she asked after her baby, the mother was then threatened with losing custody of her existing children. Her tribe didn’t know about the baby, or the adoption, until she returned to Minnesota and had to be hospitalized.

Under the Indian Child Welfare Act, tribes can petition to have custody cases heard in tribal courts and can intervene in foster care or adoptive placements outside the child’s tribe. The law holds that caseworkers—including those working on adoptions—must notify tribes of custody proceedings regarding Indian children, work to involve the tribe and the child’s family, and make “active efforts” to prevent an Indian child being removed from his or her parent or guardian.57

“Everything in the ICWA was meant to counterbalance something that was happening at the time,” said Cross. “And things that are still happening.”

ICWA is considered among the most important pieces of Indian law in U.S. history, affirming Native American sovereignty. It’s unsurprising, then, that the threat the Baby Veronica case posed to ICWA mobilized Indians and non-Indian supporters in vocal defense of the law: 393 tribes, 18 state attorneys general, 18 child-advocacy organizations, and a group of religious organizations (including Quakers, Catholic orders, and mainline Protestants) all filed amicus briefs with the Supreme Court arguing that ICWA was a vital protection of Indian families.58 Native American advocacy groups reported that the case elicited a more passionate response from tribal members than any they’d seen in recent years.

Anti-ICWA and Anti-Sovereignty

But the case also mobilized another coalition of groups that seeks to overturn not only ICWA but also—some worry—the very foundations of Native American sovereignty.

In July, shortly after the Supreme Court issued its verdict, Christina Maldonado signed onto a lawsuit against the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation, on the grounds that ICWA amounts to an illegal racial preference.59 The law, the suit argued, was sweeping up children who had only a slight connection to their Indian heritage, whose mothers were not Indian, and whose choices should therefore not be bound by ICWA’s provisions. Ten other anonymous (and one named), unmarried biological mothers of Indian children were listed as co-plaintiffs—women who had placed children for adoption with non-Indian parents and said they now feared that the adoptions wouldn’t be finalized.60 Legal experts believed that Maldonado’s lawsuit will likely be dismissed as frivolous, but she was far from the only voice challenging ICWA.

One of the most vociferous voices is Elizabeth “Lisa” Morris. In 2004, Morris, a White woman, and her husband Roland, a member of Minnesota’s Chippewa Tribe, started an ambiguously named group, the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare (CAICW).61 Converts to evangelical Christianity, the couple decided that Roland’s (and his family’s) alcoholism was a result of cultural defects in Indian Country: a “lack [of] responsibility and accountability” that causes Indians “to blame all of life’s ills on others.”62

Under the pseudonym “Beth Ward,” Elizabeth wrote Dying in Indian Country, a book about her husband’s life.  The book depicts life on reservations as a slow catastrophe of suicide, violence, drunkenness, and child abuse, which she attributes not to the historical damage done to Indian families, but rather to continued federal aid that undermines men’s rightful role to provide for their families.

“Our current reservation system rewards dependence on federal government rather than on an individual’s strength and God,” the CAICW’s website argued, echoing the old Reaganite “welfare queen” canard that people—mostly people of color—who receive public assistance are abusing the system and raking in a handsome living without working.63 (If these tropes about poor people sound familiar, they should. These days, Morris’s organization shares its events on Tea Party social media networks.)64

The couple moved to Montana, and, after getting involved in a contested adoption case of an Indian child, and professing concerns about Lisa’s custodial rights to her and Roland’s grandchildren, began fighting against ICWA, which Lisa casts as a “sickening” and “racist” system that returns Native children to abusive parents. Much of CAICW’s website is dedicated to tracking instances of physical and sexual abuse in Indian Country to drive home her argument that Indian children are often unsafe in Indian homes.

The Morrises began lobbying in Minnesota and in Washington, D.C., against “the reservation system” and against broader federal laws that acknowledge the sovereignty of Indian nations and their jurisdiction over some legal matters. Both Morrises became involved in an anti-sovereignty group called the Citizens Equal Rights Foundation (CERF, affiliated with the national group Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, or CERA): Elizabeth served on CERA’s board for some period before 200265 and Roland served on the board of both groups before his death in 2004.66  Today, CAICW’s “honorary” board members include past CERF/CERA staffers,67  and Elizabeth Morris has appeared at press conferences with CERF/CERA and has written for their publication.68

To Indian advocates like Terry Cross of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the crossover activism against ICWA and sovereignty implies the current fight against ICWA could be used to topple much of federal Indian policy.

“If you’re anti-sovereignty then you might see that the ICWA is one of the very few places in federal legislation that actually delineates and protects tribal sovereignty,” Cross said. “If you get that overturned, you could overturn perhaps 100 years of Indian law, and open up the gaming industry and get the tribes out of competition.”

Cross and other observers were particularly concerned by the role played in Baby Girl of one attorney, Paul Clement, who represented the guardian ad litem assigned to Veronica, and who made the case to overturn ICWA. Clement, formerly George W. Bush’s appointed Solicitor General, has become a well-known face of conservative causes at the Supreme Court, having argued there in support of the Defense of Marriage Act and against the Affordable Care Act. His other clients include a non-Indian gaming company that has fought Indian casinos in Massachusetts on the grounds that they benefit from a race-based violation of non-Indians’ rights.69

That’s one issue among a number that have animated a small wave of anti-sovereignty groups like CERA, which have become more active since the early 2000s.70 Originally composed of White residents who lived on or near reservations and who reacted against increased Native rights after the 1960s, these groups often use the language of civil rights and fairness to make an ahistorical call for “equal rights for Whites.” They present White citizens affected by Indian law as oppressed minorities.

“You’ve heard of the Deep South,” said John Dossett, general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). “Well, there’s an expression called the ‘Deep North.’ In towns across Washington, Idaho, and Montana, and in the border towns [near reservations], discrimination isn’t aimed at African Americans or Hispanics, but at American Indians.” Dossett suggested that the anti-sovereignty arguments reflect the logic of antigay groups that protest so-called “special rights” for LGBTQ people.71

The anti-sovereignty movement has expanded since its inception to include groups with an interest in the casino industry as well as individuals and corporations fighting tribal control of natural resources, whether wildlife or oil and gas, accorded to them by treaty. In April 2013, CERF/CERA met in western Washington State, where a hotly contested plan to export U.S. coal to China has run into opposition from Lummi Nation Indians, who have treaty rights to ancestral fishing waters in the same location as the proposed coal terminal.

According to reporter Charles Tanner Jr., who attended the meeting, speakers advised “a recurring strategic theme: anti-Indian activists should mine federal laws and court cases for anti-tribal language that can be used to seek termination in the courts and ‘educate’ local and state officials.”72 Among the cases that speakers suggested might work was the forthcoming verdict in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl.

Cross worries that a variety of anti-sovereignty groups—each relatively minor by itself—has come together to form an unexpectedly powerful coalition: “a pretty lethal brew going after ICWA.”

John Dossett agreed. “They are small groups, but they managed to mount a very large media and legal-fundraising campaign surrounding the Baby Veronica case,” he said. He suggested, though, that the real power behind the coalition might be adoption attorney associations, whose members depend on private adoption fees (averaging $30-50,000 per adoption) to stay in business.73

“Most often, when you look at the anti-tribe folks, you find out that there is a financial angle to whatever they’re arguing about,” Dossett said. “Most of that has been over land and natural uses—efforts to take the land that the tribes are sitting on, with its timber forests, oil and gas. In this case it’s not land and natural resources. It’s children.”

The Adoption Scramble

To Dossett, the surprising popularity of the anti-ICWA campaign, which garnered support far beyond the limited appeal that anti-sovereignty issues usually command, was due to the fact that the anti-ICWA groups had tapped into something “unique to adoption,” that is, people concerned about the declining number of adoptable babies. In this atmosphere of panic—fostered by an industry threatened with extinction and would-be parents who are unable to adopt children and form families—new ties seem to be forming, and the anti-ICWA battle has been bolstered by people and groups with little awareness of the broader anti-sovereignty battle.74

It probably doesn’t hurt that anti-ICWA and anti-sovereignty arguments share common rhetoric. Adoption supporters often accuse adoption-reform advocates of being motivated solely by resistance to interracial families.  Russell Moore—president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a prominent Christian adoption leader—dismissed questions about widespread transracial adoption to White evangelical churches as the bigotry of “[George] Wallace’s progressive heirs … standing in the orphanage door.”75 Likewise, anti-ICWA activists have begun to condemn the law as racist persecution of White adoptive parents.

This agenda is already taking shape on the Facebook page of the anti-ICWA Coalition for the Protection of Indian Children (CPIC). In addition to promoting articles depicting Indian children as victims of abusive Indian families and culture, the group has recently begun posting articles about the broader troubles with international adoption, drawing parallels neatly back to Indian Country. Commenting on an article about the recent ban on adoptions from Russia to the United States, the group noted, “Simply replace ‘Russian’ with ‘Indian’ and that’s exactly what ICWA is doing to non-Indians providing loving homes to children. There’s no difference. Our national leaders need to have the same disappointment for ICWA that they have for Russia’s decision to block adoption.”76 (Neither CPIC nor CAICW responded to interview requests.)

To Shannon Jones, Brown’s pro-bono attorney in South Carolina, this sort of advocacy is further evidence that the ultimate goal is procuring more adoptable children from Indian Country. In the Post and Courier, Jones argued that the adoption industry was seeking out a “pool of babies” among Native American tribes to satisfy the growing demand.77

NICWA’s Terry Cross agrees. “We believe that’s the motivation of the adoption attorneys involved,” he said, noting that Raymond Godwin, the attorney who had handled Veronica’s adoption, is now involved in another embattled adoption of an Indian child, “Baby Deseray.” In September 2013, Deseray was taken from her adoptive home in South Carolina and returned, by court order, to the custody of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.78 Godwin has referred to men like Brown and Deseray’s father as “sperm donor[s]” whose biological ties to their children do not constitute parental rights.79

While Laura Beauvais-Godwin, the South Carolina director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions and Godwin’s wife, has denied that her agency is involved in this case, and has downplayed its involvement with “Baby Veronica,” Nightlight’s dismissive approach to preserving biological families is clear. An agency position paper argues that “giving voice and power to the indigenous people means expanding intercountry adoption.”80

With more and more countries reconsidering their international adoption programs, it’s easy to imagine the extension of this argument to Indian Country, and how the adoption industry may be bolstered by the recent Baby Veronica verdict. When I spoke to Cross in November, he had just fielded a call from an Alaskan tribe that had been fighting an adoption case for four years, but had now been told that ICWA did not apply to the claim because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Baby Girl. In the last four years, NICWA has encountered 10 contested ICWA adoption cases, any of which could conceivably be affected by the new Supreme Court ruling.81

Considering the chilling effect of the lawsuit now leveled against Dusten Brown and the Cherokee Nation, NICWA worries that other tribes will feel the pressure not to fight back.

As Shannon Jones told Indian Country Today, the lawsuit (which started at $500,000 in September and rose to $1.1 million by November) sends a message: “‘Don’t mess with the all-powerful adoption industry, and don’t even think about trying to enforce the Indian Child Welfare Act.’ … They’re saying, ‘This is what’s going to happen to you if you try to protect your children.’”82 Jones added that after the first lawsuit was filed in September, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, which has fewer than 4,000 tribal members left, became so concerned about being sued that it has expressed reluctance to litigate for Deseray’s return.

NICWA is pursuing ethical complaints against attorneys that it believes are advancing unethical cases to further the attack on ICWA, and Cross has also called on professional associations of adoption attorneys to police their own members. But John Dossett of NCAI suspects that anti-ICWA advocates could have yet more success in D.C., where politicians are loathe to support restrictions on adoption.

And that’s where the groups may be headed. In a press release in September, after Baby Veronica was returned to the Capobiancos, CAICW’s Lisa Morris wrote, “This case has opened eyes to the horror the Indian Child Welfare Act has been inflicting on children across the United States.” It said that CAICW would spend fall 2013 educating Congress about how ICWA harms multi-racial families—that is, White families with Indian children.83 In October, Morris wrote a fundraising pitch for CAICW’s legal fund from a pool party at the Capobiancos’ home.84

“NICWA and our organization [worry] that this was a well-organized and well-funded campaign to really come after ICWA,” Dossett said, “and there’s suspicion that they’ll try to do it again.”


  1. Gabe Gutierrez and M. Alex Johnson, “‘Baby Veronica’ returned to adoptive parents after Oklahoma high court lifts order,” NBC News, Sept. 24, 2013,
  2. Allyson Bird, “James Island family turns over 2-year-old girl following court order,” Post and Courier, Dec. 31, 2011,
  3. Aditi Mukherji, “S.C. Court: Baby Veronica’s Adoptive Parents Should Get Custody,” FindLaw, July 19, 2013,
  4. Elizabeth Bartholet, “The International Adoption Cliff: Do Child Human Rights Matter?” May 29, 2013,
  5. Kevin Voigt and Sophie Brown, “International adoptions in decline as number of orphans grows,” CNN, Sept. 17, 2013,
  6. Jessica Arons, “The Adoption Option: Adoption Won’t Reduce Abortion but It Will Expand Women’s Choices,” Center for American Progress, Oct. 18, 2010,
  7. “Adoption: Guatemala,” The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Mar. 8, 2012,
  8. Finding Fernanda,
  9. “Ban on US adoptions ‘won’t be canceled or altered,’” RT, June 27, 2013,
  10. Britt Aamodt, “Adopting hope: Three local families’ adoptions stalled by agency bankruptcy,” Star News, Mar.15, 2013,
  11. See Kathryn Joyce, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption (Public Affairs, 2013).
  12. Joel Roberts, “Evangelicals Start Adoption Push,” CBS News, May 3, 2007,
  13. “On Adoption and Orphan Care,” Southern Baptist Convention, June 2009,
  14. See Joyce, Child Catchers, 213-239.
  15. Interview with Craig Juntunen, January 2011, published in Joyce, Child Catchers, 233.
  16. Catherine Candisky, “Abortion foes focus on easing Ohio adoptions,” Columbus Dispatch, Oct. 7, 2013,
  17. Becca Cadoff, “Texas Bill Would Require Women To Take Adoption Class Before Abortion,” ACLU, Oct. 1, 2013,
  18. Catherine Candisky, “Abortion foes focus on easing Ohio adoptions.”
  19. Napp Nazworth, “Bipartisan Senate Group Seeks to Fix Flaws in International Adoption,” Christian Post, Sept. 20, 2013,
  20. Kerry and Niels, “Stop The Children In Families First Act of 2013,” Pound Pup Legacy, Sept. 23, 2013,
  21. “S. 1458–111th Congress: Families for Orphans Act of 2009,” GovTrack, 2009,
  22. “Senators push for more efficient Haiti adoptions,” CNN, Jan. 26, 2010,
  23. Mary Landrieu and Jim Inhofe, “Washington Examiner: New approach needed to help world’s orphans,”, Mar.3, 2010,; and see ch. 1 in Joyce, Child Catchers.
  24. “PEAR Statement on Families for Orphans Act,” Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, 2010,
  25. “Category Archives: Families For Orphans Act,” Ethica,
  26. Margie Perscheid, “Ethica positions on pending international adoption legislation,” Third Mom, July 9, 2009,
  27. The Families For Orphans Coalition, “Call To Action: Families For Orphans Act,” Adopt Abroad,
  28. Christian Alliance for Orphans,
  29. Maureen McCauley Evans, “It’s Time to Oppose CHIFF,” Light of Day Stories, Jan. 7, 2014,
  30. “Pear Statement On The Proposed ‘Children In Families First Act,’” Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, Oct. 1, 2013,
  31. “Children in Families First Act—CHIFF,”
  32. “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl: Transcript,” Radiolab, May 30, 2013,
  33. “Editorial: Utah adoption law wrongly discriminates against fathers,” Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 23, 2013,
  34. Brooke Adams, “Utah adoption law: model for nation or unjust burden?” Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 26, 2011,
  35. “Title 78B Chapter 6 Section 110: Notice of adoption proceedings,” Utah State Legislature,
  36. Andrew Knapp, “Skeptics of Veronica, Desaray cases call for closer look at private adoptions, laws,” Post and Courier, Sept. 21, 2013,
  37. Laura Beauvais-Godwin, “Nightlight’s Position on Openness in Domestic Adoption,” Nightlight Christian Adoptions, Sept. 26, 2013,
  38. Daniel Nehrbass, “Nightlight’s Position on Intercountry Adoption,” Nightlight Christian Adoptions,
  39. Andrew Knapp, “Skeptics of Veronica, Desaray cases call for closer look at private adoptions, laws.”
  40. “Brief for Respondent Birth Father,” American Bar Association, Mar. 2013,
  41. Andrew Knapp, “Skeptics of Veronica, Desaray cases call for closer look at private adoptions, laws.”
  42. “Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978,” National Indian Child Welfare Association,
  43. Laura Briggs, “Guest Blogger Laura Briggs: Feminists and the Baby Veronica Case,” National Council for Research on Women,
  44. Andrew Cohen, “Indian Affairs, Adoption, and Race: The Baby Veronica Case Comes to Washington,” Atlantic, Apr. 12, 2013,
  45. “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl: Transcript,” Radiolab.
  46. Michael Overall, “‘Baby Veronica’ adoption case lobbyists move to Congress,” Tulsa World, July 11, 2012,
  47. Jessica Munday, “Save Veronica,”,
  48. Andrea Poe, “Baby Veronica case may head to U.S. Supreme Court,” Washington Times Communities, Nov. 26, 2012,
  49. Ruthann Robson, “Oral Argument Preview: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl and the Constitutional Issues,” Constitutional Law Prof Blog, Apr. 15, 2013,
  50. “Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl,” SCOTUSblog,
  51. Nina Totenberg, “S.C. Court Orders ‘Baby Veronica’ Adoption Finalized,” NPR, July 24, 2013,
  52. Michael Overall, “Baby Veronica case: Adoptive parents seek more than $1 million in legal fees from biological father, Cherokees,” Tulsa World, Nov. 5, 2013,
  53. Interview with Terry Cross, Nov. 2013
  54. Richard Pratt, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” 1892,
  55. Trace A. DeMeyer, “The Baby Veronica Case: David vs. Goliath,” Indian Country Today, Dec. 8, 2013,
  56. Cross interview.
  57. “Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978,” National Indian Child Welfare Association,
  58. “NICWA’s Key Contributions to Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl,” National Indian Child Welfare Association,
  59. Suzette Brewer, “Baby Veronica’s Birth Mother Files Suit, Claims ICWA Unconstitutional,” Indian Country Today, July 26, 2013,
  60. Andrew Knapp, “Veronica’s mother, others assert rights, ask that ICWA provisions be deemed unconstitutional,” Post and Courier, July 25, 2013,; and “ICWA Maldonado v. Holder Civil Complaint,” July 24, 2013,
  61. Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare,
  62. “To Our Family,” Dying in Indian Country,
  63. “A Child Dies and Dozens More Remain in Abusive Homes, Ignored by the BIA,” June 21, 2013,
  64. “Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare,”
  65. Lisa Morris, “The Great Chiefs Fought for Independence,” Aug. 1997,
  66. Howard B. Hanson, “Roland Morris, Sr., one of the nation’s true civil and human rights warriors is dead at 59,” Proper Economic Resource Management,
  67. “Who We Are,” Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare,
  68. “Indians fear legal breakup of family,” Washington Times, May 13, 2004,; and Morris, “The Great Chiefs Fought for Independence.”
  69. Laura Briggs, “Why Feminists Should Care About the Baby Veronica Case,” Indian Country Today, Aug. 16, 2013,
  70. “Anti-Indian Sovereignty Movement and its politicians,” Indian Country Today, Feb. 22, 2002,
  71. Interview with John Dossett, November 2013.
  72. Charles Tanner Jr., “‘Take these Tribes Down’: The Anti-Indian Movement Comes to Washington State,” Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, Apr. 26, 2013,
  73. Dossett interview.
  74. Dossett interview.
  75. Russell Moore, Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches, (Crossway, 2009), 155.
  76. Coalition for the Protection of Indian Children and Families Facebook,
  77. Andrew Knapp, “Veronica’s mother, others assert rights, ask that ICWA provisions be deemed unconstitutional.”
  78. Suzette Brewer, “South Carolina Adoption Attorney Seeks to Overturn Oklahoma Jurisdiction in Baby Deseray,” Indian Country Today, Oct. 31, 2013,
  79. Andrew Knapp, “Skeptics of Veronica, Desaray cases call for closer look at private adoptions, laws.”
  80. Daniel Nehrbass, “Nightlight’s Position on Intercountry Adoption,” Nightlight Christian Adoptions,
  81. Interview and emails with NICWA staff, November 2013.
  82. Suzette Brewer, “Capobiancos Sue Dusten Brown for Nearly Half a Million in Fees,” Indian Country Today, Sept. 25, 2013,
  83. “Veronica: One Of Many Multi-Heritage Children Hurt By ICWA,” Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare, Sept. 23, 2013,
  84. “Time For Strangers To Leave Veronica Capobianco Alone,” Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare, Oct. 24, 2013,

Kathryn Joyce is the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (Beacon Press 2009). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Nation, Slate, Mother Jones, the Atlantic, and many other publications.