Meagan! Thanks so much for being willing to talk with us about this.
So you wrote this piece about Baby Veronica (something of a misnomer at this point, as she’s not so much a baby at this point, but we’ll stick with it) back in April.
Yeah, that was just before the SCOTUS decision. Right after oral arguments. It was the first time I’d written about it, but I was familiar with the case; I was taking an Indian Law class at the time, and I have a number of friends who work in tribal courts and in Indian affairs.
This was the first time you’d written about it professionally, though.
Yes. And I never wrote about it again after that [laughs].
Did you have much of a sense for how controversial this piece would end up being?
Honestly, no. Maybe that was naïve of me. I tried to be as careful as possible, as far as not being too lenient on [Dusten Brown]. I really tried to lay out what happened as honestly as I could.
What struck me as so odd — at least based on my layperson’s understanding of the case — is that you would think that in general his evolution as a parent would have been an ideal situation for the courts. In theory, at least, the state is supposed to support the right of the biological parent except in the case of neglect or abuse. So an outcome where the father decides to step up and raise her seems like it would be exactly what they want.
Right! I also think what kind of goes overlooked is that some of his initial “disinterest” was at least due in part to the fact that he was overseas, serving in the National Guard, when Veronica was born.
And the responses you got for the article was pretty immediate and pretty angry, right?
It was really incredible. I thought that this case might be controversial or tough to talk about, but I certainly didn’t anticipate such a personal, vicious response. Generally, when I write a piece, I like to read through the comments or Tweets or emails or whatever response I get, because if there’s some point of confusion about how I’ve explained the law, I want to know. This was the first article I’d ever written where I couldn’t find a single positive thing someone had said. And it wasn’t that people were disagreeing with my legal or cultural analysis — many people told me that I only wrote it because I hated white people and that I was a bad person. This was everywhere — in the comment section, on social media, I even got messages through my personal website. One message read: “You wrote this because you clearly hate white people.” It was shocking.
Wow, that’s really intense.
Look, I have my beef with white people, but I love them all the same.
Well, it seems like in a lot of ways this dovetails with an undercurrent of…something in the adoption industry, where quite a lot of adoptive couples tend to be white, wealthy, heterosexual, and middle-aged. They tend to have a lot of money and influence, comparatively speaking.
Yes. Transracial adoption is becoming more popular and in my opinion, it can sometimes be driven largely by white savior complexes. So this is part of a trend, not an isolated occurrence. White people who want to adopt across racial boundaries I’m sure are wonderful people for the most part, but we also know that white people can’t prepare those kids for the kinds of racism they’re going to experience just by buying them a non-white doll and hoping for the best. We know that 40% of white people don’t have a non-white friend.
Oh, and by the way, the least adopted type of children are black boys (here’s a good article about it). To me a lot of this is like, “Well, I can help them. I can save them.”
The idea of saving poor children, particularly girls.
How we equate money and race with good parenting.
I don’t know if you’ve seen this, but it was passed along to me recently, and it’s a really fascinating look at how CPS often uses poverty as an indicator of neglect. So a poor parent can, in the eyes of the state, be considered almost by default an “unfit” parent.
There’s this idea that not just the state but also adoption agencies and interested adoptive couples can sort of…push things one way or the other when it comes to determining who’s a fit or unfit parent, who deserves to raise their child.
Transracial adoption — particularly when the adoptive parents are white — isn’t at all something I’m opposed to, but I feel like it’s becoming more and more common without having any attendant conversation about what this means. How are these kids going to be adequately prepared for the discrimination and hardship they’re going to face on the basis of their race? How can white parents really have conversations with their kids about dealing with the police or other racist institutions that generally favor white people?
And as transracial adoption becomes more common, are we making sure we’re not making judgments about non-white parents based on racial stereotypes? I don’t know if we are. That’s why ICWA exists, at least in part, because for so long Indian parents were presumed to be incompetent or neglectful until proven otherwise. Not to mention the long history the US government has of taking native kids and changing their names, cutting their hair, forcing them to learn English and to forget their own languages, and imposing Christian beliefs on them.
So the context of this case is really rough.
Right. And I think the response I got was particularly terrible because none of the people who were so up in arms even mentioned ICWA or its merits, just whether or not Dusten Brown was a bad person for having been initially willing to let the mother of his child raise Veronica. “Veronica should stay with the white people because they’ve had her longer.”
Which isn’t even true, at this point; Veronica had been living with her father for the last eighteen months before the state ruled in favor of the Capobiancos.
And sometimes it’s relevant, to look at who’s had custody longer, but not in this case. Here it wasn’t really all that important; the Capobiancos hadn’t followed the law.
There was a point a while back where Mrs. Capobianco had to give testimony, and she said: “Well, they [Dusten and the Cherokee Nation] obviously want to raise her. I couldn’t qualify that compared to the way I feel. I know how I feel. So — and it feels to me like we really want her more than anybody.”
Legally, siding with the Capobiancos is like saying “Go ahead and violate the law, just make sure you keep the kid for a really, really long time.”
That really is the crux of it, isn’t it?
Yeah, it is. So Dusten Brown has Veronica with him for about a year and a half before he’s ordered to return her to the Capobiancos. Now all of a sudden, the length of time he’s had custody of her doesn’t matter.
And now they’re suing him for half a million dollars.
And now they’re suing him. By the way — the way the media has characterized ICWA as it relates to this case has been insane. Like it’s a “loophole” or a “technicality.” But this is exactly the type of situation ICWA is supposed to prevent.
I have to say, my experience writing about this case, and the response that followed, was absolutely the worst. I didn’t write or pitch anything for weeks afterwards. Even when SCOTUS decided the case I purposely avoided pitching it. I didn’t want to write about it ever again.
It’s embarrassing to admit that, but it’s true. I’d never felt like really silenced like that before. I hope that doesn’t sound too cliché. I just thought, I can’t go through that again, I can’t have white people yelling at me like that again. That had never happened to me before or since.
How long did the fallout last?
At least a week. But I really laid low. I didn’t write anything for the rest of that month, for sure. One person told me that tribes shouldn’t get “special treatment” because we wouldn’t give special treatment to “book clubs” (whatever that means), which is so wacky because Indian tribes aren’t, like, cool special clubs. They’re sovereign nations. It’s slightly more important than a book club.
Another big theme was who really cared about Veronica’s “best interests.” That’s a legal standard–best interest of the child. My understanding of ICWA is that part of the “best interest” analysis necessarily includes the fact that it is in native children’s best interest to have regular access to their culture and heritage. Almost NO ONE got on board with me on that point–basically no one believed that that was a relevant consideration. Given the historical context (see above re: taking kids), this was very troubling to me.
Anything else about the case we haven’t addressed that you want to point out?
Okay, we didn’t talk too much about the case itself, but I wanted to just point out that Justice Alito wrote the majority decision. He kept bringing up the fact that Dusten Brown is only 1/256 Cherokee–this was a big criticism of my piece, also. People were actually arguing over blood quanta and whether Dusten was “Indian enough” to qualify. Which was not at issue in the case at all, and is also terribly offensive. Tribes are empowered to regulate their own memberships. Some tribes do employ a “blood quantum” requirement, but others don’t. The Cherokee Nation said Dusten Brown is Cherokee, and legally that’s the end of the story. So the fact that Alito would keep bringing it up is suspicious, and gross.
Well, I’m really really glad that you were willing to talk about it with us. Thanks for doing that.
Absolutely. Thanks for asking.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.