U.S. Supreme Court Resolves Custody Dispute Between Biological Father and Adoptive Parents

July 9, 2013

193524_hands.jpgChild custody disputes are as diverse as our society; there is no such thing as one size fits all. While some of the issues may be similar and familiar, each family brings to the table a unique set of facts and preconceived notions about how the proceedings will unfold. Add to the mix the fact that laws and court procedures vary from place to place, and the conflict may seem overwhelming. A dedicated family lawyer can help. If you are faced with a child custody issue, it is important to contact, as soon as possible, a San Diego family law attorney with extensive experience handling such matters.

In a recent case, the United States Supreme Court was asked to decide the familial fate of an American Indian child, who had been adopted by an American family when she just a baby. Prior to the girl's birth, the biological father gave up his parental rights. The biological mother then allowed a couple from South Carolina to adopt the baby girl. Just four months after her birth, the biological father (an American Indian) had a change of heart and sought custody of the baby, asserting that he did not know that his former fiancée planned to put the child up for adoption.

The parents who were in the process of legally adopting the baby had been raising her for 27 months when the South Carolina courts ruled that the biological father could have custody of his daughter. For the last 18 months, the child (who is almost four years-old), has been living with her biological father. The state courts found that both families provided the girl with loving and safe homes. At issue in the case was the interplay between federal and state laws concerning parental rights. The question was whether the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act (federal law) should be applied when it appeared to conflict with state law in South Carolina.

According to an article in the New York Times, the federal law's aim is to make it more difficult for American Indian children to be taken from their families. If only South Carolina law applied to the case, the child would have remained with the adoptive parents, but that state's courts ruled that the biological father's parental rights under the federal law overrode state law.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court, however, concluded that the federal law did not require the child to be returned to her father, holding that the statute did not apply to this case, noting that the Indian parent did not have custody of the child at any point in time. Instead, at least one Justice indicated that the purpose of the law was to prevent the unwarranted removal of Indian children from their families. Here, the biological Indian parent never had custody of his daughter. The court found that the federal law was not meant to apply to a custody dispute where an Indian child's adoption is lawfully and voluntarily initiated by a non-Indian parent with sole custody rights.

While this case did not emanate from the San Diego courts, the decision could still serve as precedent under similar facts in a California custody dispute. A local family law attorney can help parents with any custody issues they may be facing.

Parents with questions about child custody matters are encouraged to contact Roy M. Doppelt & Associates. Mr. Doppelt is a knowledgeable family law attorney with more than 20 years of experience representing parents in Southern California. Roy M. Doppelt & Associates serves clients in Linda Vista, Encinitas, Scripps Ranch, San Diego, and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a dedicated family lawyer, contact Roy M. Doppelt & Associates through the law firm's website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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