OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — In a case that is drawing comparisons to a long-running adoption dispute over a 3-year-old Cherokee girl, an Oklahoma County District Court judge awarded custody this week of a 4-month-old infant to the Absentee Shawnee Tribe following a South Carolina couple's attempt to adopt her.
In both cases, a South Carolina couple has attempted to adopt a tribal member born in Oklahoma and placed up for adoption by the mother. In both cases, the father objected. A federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act mandates strict procedures for guardianship and custody of Native American children.
In the most recent case, the infant known as Desaray was born in May in Oklahoma. A couple in South Carolina who sought to adopt her returned with her to their home. But the infant's biological father, who is not Native American, is seeking custody. Because Desaray's biological mother is a tribal member, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe has stepped in, and the tribe was awarded custody this week.
The Indian Child Welfare Act mandates that Native American children enrolled in a tribe must first be placed with an extended family member, another tribal member who is not a family member or another Native American from a different tribe.
This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Dusten Brown, a Cherokee Nation member, who is seeking custody of his biological daughter, 3-year-old Veronica, could not use the law to press his claims for custody. Veronica's biological mother is not Native American. Courts in both South Carolina and Oklahoma have ordered Brown to hand over the girl to the South Carolina couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, but Brown has refused.
A lawyer representing the Absentee Shawnee Tribe in the Desaray case said he fears the tribe could have trouble in its effort to return Desaray to Oklahoma from South Carolina.
Charles Tripp said he believes the South Carolina-based adoption lawyer, Ray Godwin, who helped set up adoption cases involving both Veronica and Desaray, and other adoption lawyers should be investigated by the Department of Justice.
"Part of the reason for an investigation is the fact that I think we've got women, primarily, who are in bad situations finically, maybe emotionally, maybe societal issues — whether that's drug and alcohol issues or criminal issues — who are being selected, preyed upon, by these agencies," he said. "I think they prey upon people in dire straits."
In a statement, Godwin said the Absentee Shawnee Tribe was aware of the plan for adoption prior to the birth and said the tribe did not voice any objections. Godwin said the couple seeking to adopt the infant came to Oklahoma to witness the birth in May and left in June because the adoptive father needed to return to work. The couple, Godwin acknowledged, did leave Oklahoma without obtaining an interstate compact agreement, which governs the placement of children from one state to another.
"But they only did so under dire circumstances," Godwin said in the statement. "Any statements by the birth father or the Absentee Shawnee Indian Tribe that the child was whisked out of Oklahoma a couple of days after birth are patently false."
Godwin said the couple then went to family court in South Carolina and a temporary custody order was put in place. It's unclear if the adoptive couple plan to appeal the Oklahoma order, though Godwin did write that the couple are trying to obtain an interstate compact agreement.
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