By Heide Brandes
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A 4-year-old Cherokee girl known as "Baby Veronica," who is at the center of a cross-country custody battle, was handed back to her adoptive non-Native American family on Monday, Cherokee Nation officials told Reuters.
The transfer came hours after the Oklahoma Supreme Court lifted a stay, clearing the way for the girl to be transferred from the custody of her biological father in Oklahoma, Dusten Brown, with whom she has lived for nearly two years.
Brown gave Veronica to her white adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco of South Carolina, at 7:30 p.m. CDT on Monday in an emotional but peaceful handoff, Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said in a statement released late Monday.
In his statement, Hembree did not say if the nation would continue to fight alongside Brown for custody, but his comments suggested that the four-year legal battle could be coming to an end.
"Veronica Brown will always be a Cherokee citizen, and although she may have left the Cherokee Nation, she will never leave our hearts," Hembree said.
Veronica took with her two packed bags - one with clothes and one with toys - and was given to a Cherokee Nation attorney, Hembree said.
"Dusten told Veronica how much he and the rest of the family love her, and that he would see her again," he said.
She was then driven a quarter mile away to meet the Capobiancos, and she left with them, Hembree said.
'SHE IS ALWAYS WELCOME'
He added that he hopes the Capobiancos "honor their word" to let Brown remain "an important part of her life," and said the tribe hopes she will visit the Cherokee Nation "for many years to come, for she is always welcome."
Oklahoma's top court earlier on Monday lifted a stay it had imposed on August 30 that had kept Veronica in Oklahoma where she has lived for the past two years while Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation, fought the adoption.
The case has highlighted overlapping parental claims in two states - as well as the clash between a Native American culture seeking to protect children from being adopted outside their tribes and U.S. legal safeguards for adoptive parents.
The Capobiancos have been in Oklahoma for the past month and have been allowed to visit Veronica, who lived with them for the first two years of her life, according to a family spokeswoman.
Veronica's birth mother, who is not Native American, arranged the adoption with the Capobiancos before the girl was born. Brown has argued he did not know the mother would give her up for adoption when he signed away his parental rights.
Brown, who was not married to the birth mother, argued that the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 allowed him to have custody of Veronica, who is 3/256th Cherokee. A South Carolina family court agreed with him and he took custody of her in 2011.
But in June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that ruling and decided the act did not apply. Her adoption by the Capobiancos was finalized in July, but Brown refused to turn her over.
Brown is still appealing the case and it could ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court again.
Monday's action does not affect an extradition order Brown currently faces on charges of custodial interference in South Carolina after refusing to hand over Veronica earlier this summer, when the Capobiancos' adoption of her was finalized.
He has a hearing on that extradition order set for October 3.
(Reporting by Heide Brandes in Oklahoma City and Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Writing by Karen Brooks and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Eric Walsh, Barbara Goldberg, Eric Beech and Lisa Shumaker)