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U.S. Supreme Court will hear complicated child custody case

As many people in Fairfax County are aware, military deployments often take a toll on families. When it comes to single or divorcing parents, deployments sometimes have the effect of limiting child custody and visitation rights. A complicated child custody case that will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court involves a military deployment as well as a complicated federal law regarding Native American families.

Next week, the Supreme Court will hear the case Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. The case involves a girl who was put up for adoption in 2009 by her biological mother while her biological father, who is of Native American descent, was preparing to deploy to Iraq.

The case hinges on the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, under which Native American tribes must be notified of adoptions that involve Native American children. The law was enacted at a time when many Native American children were being taken from their homes, sometimes unjustly.

The biological parents in this case, a white woman and a male member of the Cherokee Nation, were engaged at the time the woman became pregnant. The man then pressured her to move up the wedding, and she instead canceled the engagement and began the process of adoption without his involvement.

The baby was adopted by a South Carolina family days after her birth.

The Cherokee Nation reportedly was not notified of the adoption, despite the adoptive parents' efforts, due to inaccurate information about the biological father's identity. The biological father was also unaware of the adoption until days before he was deployed. At this time he tried to claim his parental rights, and ultimately a court found that due to the ICWA, the adoption could not happen and custody was awarded to the father--even though by this point the girl had lived with her adoptive parents for two years. An appeals court and the state's Supreme Court affirmed this decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court is now tasked with deciding whether the state courts were correct in allowing a non-custodial Indian parent to use the ICWA to block an adoption that was initiated lawfully by the other parent. The court will also have to decide whether this man is technically a parent under the ICWA--as he was not married to the mother and had not legally asserted his parental rights prior to being notified of the adoption.

The court's decision may have a significant impact on the child custody rights of Indian tribes and parents nationwide.

Source: Huffington Post, "Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl," Margaret Ryznar, March 18, 2013

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