Supreme Court rules against father in ICWA child custody case

A much-overlooked Supreme Court decision this week could impact the child custody rights of fathers and Native Americans in the United States. The justices held that a Native American man could not depend on the federal statute the Indian Child Welfare Act as a defense against the termination of his parental rights over his daughter after another couple adopted her.

The case, which has been remanded back to the state court level, essentially create a new standard for judges to apply when applying ICWA to child custody and adoption cases. However, it did not overturn ICWA, which many Native American groups have said they are relieved about.

The case involves a 3-year-old girl who was born to a non-Indian mother and a part Indian father. Prior to the girl’s birth, her mother agreed to adopt the child to a caucasian couple, who the child began living with at birth. The father initially agreed to the adoption in a text message and then signed papers terminating his parental rights when the girl was 4-months-old.

But the very next day, the father changed his mind — or stated that he didn’t understand what he was signing — and sued for custody of the girl. The father argued that under ICWA, which intended to keep Indian children with their Indian families whenever possible, he had a right to custody.

Typically, a parent who had terminated parental rights wouldn’t have had much luck getting custody back of the child, but the father was right, he had ICWA on his side. State courts eventually ordered that the adoptive parents give up custody of the girl when she was 27 months, and they petitioned the case to the Supreme Court.

When the Court issued its deeply-divided ruling, the girl had been living with her father for 18 months, but they ordered that she should be returned to her adoptive parents. In the majority opinion, Justice Alito wrote that despite ICWA, the biological father did not have a right to reverse the adoption because he had never had custody of the child and never made any significant attempts at becoming her parent.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Supreme Court rejects Native American father’s custody request,” Timothy M. Phelps, June 25, 2013

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