The Baby Veronica Case: Call It Anything, But Not a Win

In the entirely justified celebrations that have followed the Supreme Court’s striking down of the Defense of Marriage Act, another, less well-known case has gotten lost in the shuffle.

On Monday, the Supreme Court held that the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) does not apply to a case where a part-Cherokee child’s biological father never had custody of her, and no Cherokee relatives stepped forward to adopt her before she was adopted by a family with no Cherokee heritage.

The birth father, Dusten Brown, is a member of the Cherokee Nation under that tribe’s rules regarding who can be a member. The birth mother, Christy Maldonado, is not Native American. Maldonado got pregnant while engaged to Brown, but the couple broke up. Brown did not support Maldonado financially during her pregnancy, and the two had an exchange of text messages (before the baby was born) in which he said that he would consent to the adoption. When he was notified that adoption proceedings were pending, he signed a consent before meeting with a lawyer. Once he had met with a lawyer the next day, he immediately attempted to revoke his consent, oppose the adoption, and gain custody of the child.

A few things jumped out at me about this case. I have always thought that ICWA as applied to private adoption is a terrible idea. The statute was designed to prevent abuses (very serious ones, and still ongoing from what I understand) where the state was removing Native American children from their homes and placing them in foster care when no abuse or neglect had taken place. A huge, disproportionate number of Native American children were removed this way, and in the 1970′s it was egregious enough that they passed a Federal law to try to prevent it. The explicit purpose of the statute is to prevent children from being removed from their families against the will of the parents and without sufficient cause. I personally (and there are many who disagree with me) don’t see how the purposes of the statute are served by allowing tribes to intervene in adoptions, where state laws protect the parents’ rights without respect to race. If the parents want the child to be adopted, why involve the tribe? I’m uncomfortable when race comes into cases where it really doesn’t belong.

That being said, I’m very troubled by the fathers’ rights issues implicated in this case. This is a dad who intervened in the case as soon as he learned that an adoption was contemplated. Granted, he wasn’t exactly a standup guy during the pregnancy, but it’s not clear from anything I’ve read that he was ever even notified when the baby was born. The court made much of the fact that he had not supported the birth mother financially during her pregnancy, and that indeed his lack of support may have been a factor in her decision to place the baby for adoption. However, there’s so much that we don’t know about why that was. If the birth mother told Dad to eat dirt and never contact her again, that sheds a very different light on his lack of support, in my view. Be that as it may, as soon as Dad got notice, he objected. The Supreme Court states in its opinion that he would not have had the right to intervene under South Carolina’s law; ICWA was the only reason he was still in the case at all. This says to me that South Carolina’s law does not adequately protect fathers. I feel similarly about our laws here in Virginia, where I practice. The law doesn’t give good-faith fathers much of a chance, and that is wrong. Of course, only ICWA, and not father’s rights in general, was the issue before the Supreme Court in this case, so they could not have ruled on that ground.

But the Court also made much of the fact that ICWA was designed to prevent the “breakup” of Indian families, which it interpreted to mean that a child should not be removed from an intact family. Are we to believe that keeping a father who wants to parent his daughter from doing so does not count as the “breakup” of a family, merely because he never had custody? He wanted custody! He just was unable to get it in South Carolina’s courts.

I read a post on an adoption forum where someone stated that the Supreme Court’s verdict was “a win for the best interests of the child.” Wrong. Veronica spent the first two years and three months of her life with her adoptive parents, then went to live with a father who was a total stranger to her. How the South Carolina court came to the conculusion that this wasn’t clearly detrimental to the best interests of the child I have no idea, but it’s completely unsupported by child development science. Separating a two-year-old child from the only family she has ever known is an inevitable recipe for an attachment disorder. But (big But!) at this point, she has been with her father for 18 months. If she is indeed returned to the adoptive parents, that is not a “win.” It’s a tragedy no matter how you slice it.

I agree with the majority insofar as I think the purposes of ICWA are more geared towards keeping children in intact families, not in disrupting adoptions where everyone has consented properly under stat law. But I am troubled that state law in SC gives dad so little opportunity to exercise his rights. Most of all, I hope that these parties can come to their damn senses and agree do what is right for the child, which is most probably for her to stay right where she is rather than have her life turned upside down yet again.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

A Victory for Love in the DOMA/Prop 8 Case

Congratulations to my clients who are same-sex couples on this beautiful victory in the Supreme Court today. It is still unclear how this change will apply, particularly to those who live in states where same-sex marriage (and adoption) is still illegal (including my home state of Virginia). There is still so much work to be done to obtain equality for families and children in this country. However, today’s ruling is a huge step forward.

I am especially excited by the Supreme Court’s explicit ruling that same-sex marriage is beneficial for children. My practice is centered on children, and I know that aside from simply being the right thing to do, marriage equality protects children by giving them two parents with equal rights and responsibilities, as well as making more families eligible to foster needy children and adopt them from foster care. Justice Kennedy wrote that DOMA “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”

I am a straight child-welfare lawyer in an egregiously discriminatory state. I believe in the equality and dignity of all people before the law. I believe that all loving families are beneficial for children. If you are a GLBTQ person with a child-related legal issue, I make you this pledge: I will help you make it through this shameful period in our nation’s history. Take heart — it is getting better.

This is so great — and there’s still so much to be done! Let’s celebrate and then get back to work.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

In Finland, a Complete Newborn Kit – Just Add Baby!

From the “great ideas” department, I just learned from this article that in Finland, every expectant mother gets a “maternity package” – a box containing diapers, bedding, clothing, bathing supplies, outdoor gear, and a picture book. The box that it comes in has a small mattress in the bottom so it can be baby’s bed. Expectant mothers who visit a doctor before their fourth month of pregnancy have a choice between the box or a cash grant of 140 euros (about $186), but most choose the box, because the contents are more valuable. Why give the box during pregnancy, rather than when the mother is discharged from the hospital? It encourages expectant mothers to get obstetrical care during pregnancy. Not surprising, then, that Finland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world. What a smart way to give babies the right start in life!

Another thing I love about this idea is that it highlights how very little babies truly need. While the baby-stuff industry would like us to believe that babies need wipe warmers and head bows and crib bumpers and singing night-lights, the truth is that all babies really need is milk or formula, something to wear, a safe place to sleep, a little wash now and then, and lots and lots of love.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

You Can Help Save Leah’s House

I very, very rarely endorse charitable causes on the site. There are simply too many, and sorting the well-managed ones from the other kind can be daunting. However, I want to take a moment to share a dear friend’s story. If you are looking for a good cause for your charitable giving this holiday season, please consider helping to Save Leah’s House.

I will let the website speak for itself, but I want to say a word about this sweet family. My dear friend Susan and her husband adopted their sweet daughter Leah in 2009 when she was a newborn. When I give seminars, I often use their family as an example of how well open adoption can work, as they have a lovely, open relationship with Leah’s birth mother. I also use them as an example of why people with disabilities should not despair of ever getting “chosen” by a birth mother. Michael had Norrie’s Disease, a rare genetic condition that caused him to be blind and hard of hearing. He was one of the most positive, motivated people I have ever known, and strove to excellence in every aspect of his life, including fatherhood. He called Leah his “little angel.” Michael passed away very suddenly and unexpectedly on July 12, 2012 after he collapsed while having dinner with the family.

Please consider Susan and Leah in your holiday giving plans. Here’s the link again: Save Leah’s House.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Happy National Adoption Day!

November 17 is National Adoption Day, and communities around the country are celebrating with special events. Many communities, like mine, host a special celebration at the courthouse where all adoptive families who have finalized this year are honored, and many adoptions are officially finalized in a special ceremony. You can find a list of events here.

But National Adoption Day is not just about adoptive families. I hope that those who know a mother who has placed her child for adoption will reach out and let them know they are loved and supported.

However you celebrate, enjoy the day.

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Celebrating National Adoption Month


It’s been a while since I posted, as things have been busy, busy, busy at The Vaughan Firm! Welcome to all my newest clients, and congratulations for those who are celebrating their finalizations this month.

November is National Adoption Month, a time to celebrate, learn about, and teach others about adoption. To kick it off, I’ve compiled an interesting list. Most everyone knows what celebrities have adopted a child. Do you know which celebrities were adopted themselves? Here are a few.

Steve Jobs
Art Linkletter
Kristin Chenoweth
Edgar Allen Poe
John Lennon
Faith Hill
Jamie Foxx
Debbie Harry
Tim McGraw
Sarah McLauchlan
Nelson Mandela
Leo Tolstoy
Nat King Cole
Babe Ruth
Malcolm X
Snooki

I bet you never expected to see a list that included both Leo Tolstoy and Snooki. There you have it, folks. Did I miss any of your favorite celebrities who were adopted? Post them in the comments!

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Adoption Types Quiz

If you have met me and talked about adoption for more than 2 minutes, you have probably heard me say “there is no right way to adopt – only the right way for your family.” But how do you know what the right way is for your family? It’s based on a number of factors, and each family will weigh them differently. Below is a series of stories about different families (as you might guess, these are made-up stories, not real clients! You won’t catch me telling real client stories on the blog). Can you guess which type of adoption I would suggest for each one? When you’re done, click here to see the answers. If you need help getting started making the adoption-type decision yourself, contact the firm for a free Adoption Decisionmaking Toolkit.

1. Ellen and Mike
Ellen and Mike are an older couple – both in their late forties. Ellen runs a small, part-time sewing business from home while Mike works full time. They have no doubt in their minds that they want to adopt a healthy newborn, but they are flexible on other factors (race, gender, etc.). Mike describes himself as laid-back and easygoing, while Ellen is anxious and has a lot of worries about adoption.

2. Ashley and Jim
Ashley and Jim have decided to adopt after a long struggle with infertility. They both have high-powered jobs and travel a lot, so they don’t have much time to devote to the process of adoption. Because of these high-powered jobs, they have a generous adoption budget and aren’t concerned about cost. After all the infertility treatments and stress, Ashley and Jim just really want someone to handle the whole process for them.

3. Tamara and Miguel
Tamara and Miguel are a young couple, just married for a few years. They met in the Peace Corps and enjoy traveling the world and experiencing other cultures. They’re particularly interested in adopting a child from Colombia, where Miguel’s family is from, or possibly from Haiti or Ethiopia, both of which they have visited.

4. Sarah and John
Sarah and John are another young couple. John is an accountant, while Sarah is a freelance writer who really dreams of being a stay-at-home mom. Like they do with most new things that they take on, Sarah and John have done a lot of research about adoption. They are highly organized and like to be in control of situations to the extent possible. They also like to know exactly how their money is being spent.

Ready to see my answers? Click here!

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

“I’m Having Their Baby” on Oxygen

Lately, whenever I tell someone that I’m an adoption lawyer, the next question is “have you seen that show, ‘I’m Having Their Baby’?” The Oxygen Network’s new show has the adoption community buzzing, and love it or hate it, everybody seems to be watching.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first of all: The title is offensive. Truly offensive. It’s almost like they took a poll and came up with the most offensive title they possibly could, short of calling it “F*** You, Adoption Community.” When an expectant mother makes an adoption plan with an adoptive family, she is not “having their baby.” She is having her baby. Of course, that’s why they don’t let lawyers title television shows: I would have called it “I’m Pregnant and Planning to Place My Baby with an Adoptive Family After Being Counseled About the Alternatives, Understanding My Rights, and Deciding It’s in the Baby’s Best Interests, and After I Relinquish My Parental Rights and the Court Approves the Adoption, He or She Will Then Be Their Baby.” Or maybe just “The Adoption Show.”

I have seen a couple of episodes, and it hasn’t been as bad as the title suggests. In fact, I’d say it’s a better portrayal of adoption than most of what we see in the entertainment industry. Whether people’s private family decisions should be the subject of entertainment is another story altogether. What I liked most about the show is that it shatters a few stereotypes about women who choose adoption for their babies. Generally the media portrays women who make an adoption plan as either extremely young, poor, addicted to drugs, or some combination of those. Oxygen’s show (don’t make me type that title again!) portrays women of different ages, economic conditions, and education levels, and who have different reasons for making their adoption plans. What worries me most about the show is that with cameras rolling, I bet these expectant mothers are feeling extra pressure to go through with the adoption.

What do you think? Have you seen the show? Did you think it portrayed adoption accurately? Was it respectful to the parties?

Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

Decline in International Adoptions Means More Families Wait

Today NPR ran this interesting piece about how the decline in international adoptions has affected U.S. families who want to adopt from abroad. In 2004, there were about 45,000 international adoptions to the United States. By this year, that number had dropped to 25,000, bringing international adoptions to their lowest rate in 15 years. This downward trend is due to a number of factors:

  • Some countries, such as Russia, South Korea, and China, are working harder to promote domestic adoption within their borders.
  • The U.S. has closed all adoptions from some countries where corruption was a serious concern, such as Guatemala and Vietnam.
  • Some countries have voluntarily shut down their adoption programs until they are able to comply with The Hague Convention.
  • More and more countries have signed The Hague Convention, making adoptions from those countries more complex and expensive.
  • The economic downturn has put international adoption, which is the most expensive type of adoption, out of reach for many American families.

    Although the stories of waiting families and waiting children are undoubtedly sad, to me the important thing is that the restrictions on international adoptions are designed to protect children and families from fraud, kidnapping, and baby-selling. Children deserve our best, and adoption must be done ethically or not at all.

    Have you adopted internationally? How long did it take? If you’ve adopted more than once, did you notice a difference in wait times over the years? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments.

    Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

  • An Ingenious App for Waiting Parents

    We all love babies, but let’s face it: When you’re going through infertility treatments or waiting to adopt a child, sometimes other people’s babies are the last thing you want to see. Like most things in life these days, there’s an app for that – at least, for Google Chrome users. Simply download Unbaby.me and it will remove all photos of babies from your newsfeed and replace them with the photo of your choice (such as the friendly tree shown above, or a photo of your favorite adoption attorney). According to the L.A. Times, the app has already gotten 41,000 “Likes” on Facebook. Talk about better living through technology!

    Do you have more questions about adoption? Contact The Vaughan Firm to speak with an adoption attorney.

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