Adoptive parents take custody of Veronica from biological father
By MICHAEL OVERALL
TAHLEQUAH -- Baby Veronica’s biological family handed over the 4-year-old girl Monday night, giving her back to her adoptive parents from South Carolina.
The child's transfer of custody was formally announced by Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree.
In an interview with the Tulsa World, Hembree said a district court order was issued about 4:30 p.m. to hand over Veronica. The order came after the Oklahoma Supreme Court lifted its ruling that had kept Veronica in her biological father's custody while the appeals played out.
Cherokee County Sheriff's Office undersheriff Jason Chennault said his office received the court order at 5 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., Veronica was with the Capobiancos.
"The court order was directed to us, so we served it," Chennault said. "We gave the Browns time to say goodbye and pack some things for Veronica, some clothes and things."
The Cherokee Nation was prepared to require that the court order giving custody to the child's adoptive parents, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, be domesticated in tribal court, Hembree said. But Dusten Brown, the girl's biological father, decided that it was in Veronica's best interests to proceed with a "peaceful and respectful transfer," Hembree said.
However, the appeals might not be over.
"We will assess our legal options in the morning," Hembree said. "Is this over? I would say not."
Hembree said he wasn't present for the exchange, but "it was a peacful transfer. Obviously, it was not easy for anyone involved."
The Charleston Post and Courier reported that Brown was not at the exchange with the Capobiancos and broke down in tears after Veronica left the home where he and his family had stayed since July on tribal land. Veronica spent the first 27 months of her life in South Carolina with the Capobiancos and has lived in Oklahoma for nearly two years.
James Fletcher Thompson, a Spartanburg, S.C., attorney for the Capobiancos, said Veronica and her adoptive parents were in good spirits, according to the Post and Courier.
“It was really a sweet thing to finally see after all this time,” Thompson told the newspaper. “The transition seemed to go without incident. That in itself is very good news for all involved.”
A crowd of a few dozen supporters had gathered for Brown, and Hembree addressed the crowd when it was over.
He told supporters to pray for the Brown family and especially for Veronica. He didn't answer questions about specifics of the custody arrangement or details of the transfer. He said it wasn't the time for that.
Hembree said he knew Brown's family appreciated the support, and that's why he felt he should address them.
Tahlequah is headquarters of the Cherokee Nation, and Brown and Veronica are citizens of the tribe. They had been staying at the Jack Brown House, a VIP facility at tribal headquarters.
Brown’s attorney, Clark Brewster, confirmed that the Brown family was negotiating the possibility of giving up the girl late Monday.
With people gathering near the scene, Cherokee Nation marshals were stationed at intersections about 100 yards away from the house.
As the crowd gathered, an ambulance was seen at the house where Veronica and her biological father had been living. The child's grandfather had a medical emergency that required the ambulance, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Earlier in the day, after a week of negotiations failed to reach a settlement between the biological father and the adoptive parents, the Oklahoma Supreme Court cleared the way to send Veronica to South Carolina.
CONTRIBUTING:Mike Brown, World Correspondent
Here is the story from earlier today:
With negotiations ending between two sets of parents Monday morning, the Oklahoma Supreme Court lifted a ruling this afternoon that was keeping Baby Veronica with her biological father, according to online court records.
With 4-year-old Veronica staying on tribal land near Tahlequah, it would apparently take a tribal court order or a federal court order to remove the girl from her biological father, Dusten Brown.
"This order, just like any other order from a foreign jurisdiction needs to be filed for domestication with the Cherokee Nation District Court," said Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree. "There is a conflicting Cherokee Nation order concerning a Cherokee Nation citizen on Cherokee Nation land. We are a sovereign nation with a valid and historic court system.
"As Attorney General, I will require that our court system be honored and respected. I took an oath when assuming this office to uphold the laws and constitution of the Cherokee Nation and the United States. Nowhere in that oath is it required that I defend the laws of South Carolina."
Matt and Melanie Capobianco came to Oklahoma more than a month ago to bring their daughter back to South Carolina, where they raised Veronica, a Cherokee citizen, for the first 27 months of her life. A spokesperson for the family said the supreme court's decision today means "a long legal nightmare finally has come to an end.
"Matt and Melanie cannot wait to bring Veronica home and begin the healing process as a reunited family. Their hope now is that the Brown family and Cherokee Nation will return Veronica peacefully and voluntarily, rather than following through with their previous threats to continue to ignore court orders and place Veronica in a dangerous and traumatic situation."
But Clark Brewster, an attorney representing Brown, said, "This situation is far from resolved. Dusten Brown will do everything he can within the law to challenge this decision."
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that it would no longer block a Nowata County court's order that confirmed Veronica's South Carolina adoption. The Nowata County order demanded that Brown turn the girl over to the Capobaincos immediately.
Brown and the Cherokee Nation appealed the order to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which instructed the Civil Court of Appeals in Tulsa to have mediation with the girl's parents. Last week, the two sides met for five days -- about 30 hours -- and didn't reach an agreement.
"All the parties negotiated in good faith in my opinion and have been represented by lawyers of competence, skill and diligence,” a settlement judge told the Tulsa World this morning.
“It is a procedurally and substantively complex case, which we simply were unable to resolve by a settlement agreement. As a consequence, the settlement conference was adjourned this morning, and the parties and their attorneys instructed that all gag orders remain operative and in effect.”
Brewster did not reveal details of the negotiations. In a text message to the Tulsa World, Brewster said:
"Dusten tried in every way to reason with the Capobiancos and their legal team of Washington, D.C., and local lawyers. We have spent the past five days trying to forge an agreement to no avail.
"Although the Oklahoma Supreme Court today dissolved its order ... we will confer with Dusten about his remaining legal options and vigorously pursue Veronica's right to have her best interests be the paramount consideration."
Brewster said Brown could continue his appeals to the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
After spending the first two years of her life in South Carolina with the Capobiancos, Veronica has lived the last two years with Brown and his family in Nowata, about an hour north of Tulsa.
After a week-long mediation conference in downtown Tulsa, negotiations ended Monday morning without an agreement between Veronica’s parents. Walking in without attorneys, the Capobiancos arrived at the courthouse just before 9 a.m. Brown and his attorney, Rob Nigh, walked in shortly afterward, with a supporter briefly stopping the biological father to shake his hand. They left less than an hour later.
The custody battle has snaked through a legal maze in Oklahoma, where the parents have visited seven different courthouses in six different counties.
The legal battles include a felony warrant for Brown in South Carolina, where he’s facing a complaint of custodial interference for not giving the girl back to the Capobiancos.
His attorneys have argued that he’s under no legal obligation to obey the South Carolina court order while the case remains under appeal in Oklahoma.
He’ll face an extradition hearing Oct. 3 in Sequoyah County, where a judge could send him to South Carolina.
The settlement negotiations would have ended the criminal case against Brown, too, if an agreement had been reached.
In the past, the Capobiancos have said that they wanted Brown and his Cherokee family to be "a part of Veronica's life," but they have not publicly offered a specific compromise.
Earlier this year, members of the Brown family revealed a proposal to send Veronica to South Carolina every summer, but keep her in Oklahoma for the school year.
Any compromise presumably would have included at least visitation rights for Brown, who has had custody of Veronica since December 2011.
After arranging a private adoption with Brown's ex-fiancée, the Capobiancos lost custody of Veronica after courts in South Carolina ruled that Brown had not given "voluntary consent" to the adoption.
But the couple appealed the decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided 5-4 that the lower courts had misinterpreted a federal law when they gave custody to Brown.
While the Supreme Court's decision struck down part of his case, Brown's attorneys have argued that he can still challenge the adoption on other grounds.