Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, No. 12–399.

CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation186 L.Ed.2d 729,133 S.Ct. 2552,570 U.S. 637
Decision Date25 June 2013
Docket NumberNo. 12–399.
Parties ADOPTIVE COUPLE, Petitioners v. BABY GIRL, a minor child under the age of fourteen years, et al.

570 U.S. 637
133 S.Ct.
2552
186 L.Ed.2d 729

ADOPTIVE COUPLE, Petitioners
v.
BABY GIRL, a minor child under the age of fourteen years, et al.

No. 12–399.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued April 16, 2013.
Decided June 25, 2013.


Lisa S. Blatt, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

Paul D. Clement, Washington, DC, for Respondent Guardian ad Litem in support of the Petitioners.

Charles A. Rothfeld, Washington, DC, for Respondents Birth Father, et al.

Edwin S. Kneedler, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the Respondents Birth Father, et al.

Mark Fiddler, Fiddler Law Office, P.A., Minneapolis, MN, Lisa S. Blatt, Counsel of Record, Christopher S. Rhee, R. Reeves Anderson, Bob Wood, Arnold & Porter LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

Thomas P. Lowndes, Charleston, SC, Paul D. Clement, Counsel of Record, Kelsi Brown Corkran, Bancroft PLLC, Washington, DC, for Guardian ad Litem as Representative of Baby Girl.

John S. Nichols, Bluestein, Nichols, Thompson & Delgado LLC, Columbia, SC, Shannon Phillips Jones, Charleston, SC, Lesley Ann Sasser, Charleston, SC, Charles A. Rothfeld, Counsel of Record, Andrew J. Pincus, Paul W. Hughes, Michael B. Kimberly, Mayer Brown LLP, Washington, DC, Jeffrey A. Meyer, Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic, New Haven, CT, for Respondent Birth Father.

Lloyd B. Miller, William R. Perry, Anne D. Noto, Colin Cloud Hampson, Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry, LLP, Washington, DC, Carter G. Phillips, Sidley Austin LLP, Washington, DC, Todd Hembree, Attorney General, Chrissi Ross Nimmo, Assistant Attorney General, Counsel of Record, Cherokee Nation, Tahlequah, OK, for Respondent Cherokee Nation.

Justice ALITO delivered the opinion of the Court.

570 U.S. 641

This case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is classified as an Indian because she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee. Because Baby Girl is classified in this way, the South Carolina Supreme Court held that certain provisions of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 required her to be taken, at the age of 27 months, from the only parents she had ever known and handed over to her biological father, who had attempted to relinquish his parental rights and who had no prior contact with the child. The provisions of the federal statute

133 S.Ct. 2557

at issue here do not demand this result.

Contrary to the State Supreme Court's ruling, we hold that 25 U.S.C. § 1912(f) —which bars involuntary termination of a parent's rights in the absence of a heightened showing that serious harm to the Indian child is likely to result from the parent's "continued custody" of the child—does not apply when, as here, the relevant parent never had custody of the child. We further hold that § 1912(d) —which conditions involuntary termination of parental rights with respect to an Indian child on a showing that remedial efforts have been made to prevent the "breakup of the Indian family"—is inapplicable when, as here, the parent abandoned the Indian child before birth and never had custody of the child.

570 U.S. 642

Finally, we clarify that § 1915(a), which provides placement preferences for the adoption of Indian children, does not bar a non-Indian family like Adoptive Couple from adopting an Indian child when no other eligible candidates have sought to adopt the child. We accordingly reverse the South Carolina Supreme Court's judgment and remand for further proceedings.

I

"The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA), 92 Stat. 3069, 25 U.S.C. §§ 1901 – 1963, was the product of rising concern in the mid–1970's over the consequences to Indian children, Indian families, and Indian tribes of abusive child welfare practices that resulted in the separation of large numbers of Indian children from their families and tribes through adoption or foster care placement, usually in non-Indian homes." Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians v. Holyfield, 490 U.S. 30, 32, 109 S.Ct. 1597, 104 L.Ed.2d 29 (1989). Congress found that "an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families [were being] broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies." § 1901(4). This "wholesale removal of Indian children from their homes" prompted Congress to enact the ICWA, which establishes federal standards that govern state-court child custody proceedings involving Indian children. Id., at 32, 36, 109 S.Ct. 1597 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also § 1902 (declaring that the ICWA establishes "minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families").1

570 U.S. 643

Three provisions of the ICWA are especially relevant to this case. First, "[a]ny party seeking" an involuntary termination of parental rights to an Indian child under state law must demonstrate that "active efforts have been made to provide remedial services and rehabilitative programs designed to prevent the breakup of the Indian family and that these efforts have proved unsuccessful." § 1912(d). Second, a state court may not involuntarily terminate parental rights to an Indian child "in the absence of a determination, supported by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, including testimony of qualified expert witnesses, that the continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is

133 S.Ct. 2558

likely to result in serious emotional or physical damage to the child." § 1912(f). Third, with respect to adoptive placements for an Indian child under state law, "a preference shall be given, in the absence of good cause to the contrary, to a placement with (1) a member of the child's extended family; (2) other members of the Indian child's tribe; or (3) other Indian families." § 1915(a).

II

In this case, Birth Mother (who is predominantly Hispanic) and Biological Father (who is a member of the Cherokee Nation) became engaged in December 2008. One month later, Birth Mother informed Biological Father, who lived about four hours away, that she was pregnant. After learning of the pregnancy, Biological Father asked Birth Mother to move up the date of the wedding. He also refused to provide any financial support until after the two had married. The couple's relationship deteriorated, and Birth Mother broke off the engagement in May 2009. In June, Birth Mother sent Biological Father a text message asking if he would rather pay child support or relinquish his parental rights. Biological Father responded via text message that he relinquished his rights.

Birth Mother then decided to put Baby Girl up for adoption. Because Birth Mother believed that Biological Father

570 U.S. 644

had Cherokee Indian heritage, her attorney contacted the Cherokee Nation to determine whether Biological Father was formally enrolled. The inquiry letter misspelled Biological Father's first name and incorrectly stated his birthday, and the Cherokee Nation responded that, based on the information provided, it could not verify Biological Father's membership in the tribal records.

Working through a private adoption agency, Birth Mother selected Adoptive Couple, non-Indians living in South Carolina, to adopt Baby Girl. Adoptive Couple supported Birth Mother both emotionally and financially throughout her pregnancy. Adoptive Couple was present at Baby Girl's birth in Oklahoma on September 15, 2009, and Adoptive Father even cut the umbilical cord. The next morning, Birth Mother signed forms relinquishing her parental rights and consenting to the adoption. Adoptive Couple initiated adoption proceedings in South Carolina a few days later, and returned there with Baby Girl. After returning to South Carolina, Adoptive Couple allowed Birth Mother to visit and communicate with Baby Girl.

It is undisputed that, for the duration of the pregnancy and the first four months after Baby Girl's birth, Biological Father provided no financial assistance to Birth Mother or Baby Girl, even though he had the ability to do so. Indeed, Biological Father "made no meaningful attempts to assume his responsibility of parenthood" during this period. App. to Pet. for Cert. 122a (Sealed; internal quotation marks omitted).

Approximately four months after Baby Girl's birth, Adoptive Couple served Biological Father with notice of the pending adoption. (This was the first notification that they had provided to Biological Father regarding the adoption proceeding.) Biological Father signed papers stating that he accepted service and that he was "not contesting the adoption." App. 37. But Biological Father later testified that, at the time he signed the papers, he thought that he was

570 U.S. 645

relinquishing his rights to Birth Mother, not to Adoptive Couple.

Biological Father contacted a lawyer the day after signing the papers, and subsequently

133 S.Ct. 2559

requested a stay of the adoption proceedings.2 In the adoption proceedings, Biological Father sought custody and stated...

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46 practice notes
  • Travers v. FedEx Corp., CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-6106
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • July 20, 2020
    ...need not evaluate FedEx's laches argument.13 In re Trump Ent. Resorts , 810 F.3d 161, 167 (3d Cir. 2016).14 Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl , 570 U.S. 637, 652, 133 S.Ct. 2552, 186 L.Ed.2d 729 (2013) (quoting United Sav. Ass'n of Texas v. Timbers of Inwood Forest Assocs., Ltd. , 484 U.S. 365, ......
  • Perez v. Cissna, No. 18-1330
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • January 29, 2019
    ...state courts traditionally exercise full authority over that area of law. See Ojo , 813 F.3d at 539 (citing Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl , 570 U.S. 637, 133 S.Ct. 2552, 2565, 186 L.Ed.2d 729 (2013) (Thomas, J., concurring) (emphasizing that "domestic relations is an area that has long been ......
  • Brackeen v. Zinke, Civil Action No. 4:17-cv-00868-O
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Northern District of Texas
    • October 4, 2018
    ...by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies.’ " Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl , 570 U.S. 637, 133 S.Ct. 2552, 2557, 186 L.Ed.2d 729 (2013) (quoting 25 U.S.C. § 1901(4) ). Recognizing "that there is no resource that 338 F.Supp.3d 521......
  • In re D.J.S., No. 36423-2-III
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • January 28, 2020
    ...to further the child’s best interests. To support his argument, Smith only cites an amicus brief filed in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl , 570 U.S. 637, 133 S. Ct. 2552, 186 L. Ed. 2d 729 (2013). Based on the brief, Smith asserts that Native American children encounter difficulty in adulthood......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
40 cases
  • Travers v. FedEx Corp., CIVIL ACTION NO. 19-6106
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania)
    • July 20, 2020
    ...need not evaluate FedEx's laches argument.13 In re Trump Ent. Resorts , 810 F.3d 161, 167 (3d Cir. 2016).14 Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl , 570 U.S. 637, 652, 133 S.Ct. 2552, 186 L.Ed.2d 729 (2013) (quoting United Sav. Ass'n of Texas v. Timbers of Inwood Forest Assocs., Ltd. , 484 U.S. 365, ......
  • Perez v. Cissna, No. 18-1330
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
    • January 29, 2019
    ...state courts traditionally exercise full authority over that area of law. See Ojo , 813 F.3d at 539 (citing Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl , 570 U.S. 637, 133 S.Ct. 2552, 2565, 186 L.Ed.2d 729 (2013) (Thomas, J., concurring) (emphasizing that "domestic relations is an area that has long been ......
  • Brackeen v. Zinke, Civil Action No. 4:17-cv-00868-O
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Northern District of Texas
    • October 4, 2018
    ...by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies.’ " Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl , 570 U.S. 637, 133 S.Ct. 2552, 2557, 186 L.Ed.2d 729 (2013) (quoting 25 U.S.C. § 1901(4) ). Recognizing "that there is no resource that 338 F.Supp.3d 521......
  • In re D.J.S., No. 36423-2-III
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Washington
    • January 28, 2020
    ...to further the child’s best interests. To support his argument, Smith only cites an amicus brief filed in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl , 570 U.S. 637, 133 S. Ct. 2552, 186 L. Ed. 2d 729 (2013). Based on the brief, Smith asserts that Native American children encounter difficulty in adulthood......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
3 books & journal articles
  • Indigenous Subjects.
    • United States
    • Yale Law Journal Vol. 131 Nbr. 8, June 2022
    • June 1, 2022
    ...U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in either case, the arguments may have had more traction. See, e.g., Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 570 U.S. 637, 641 (2013) (limiting application of the Indian Child Welfare Act to a child whom the majority opinion described as "1.2% (3/256) Cherokee").......
  • Originalism: Can Theory and Supreme Court Practice Be Reconciled?
    • United States
    • The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy Nbr. 19-1, January 2021
    • January 1, 2021
    ...1417 (2018); Patchak v. Zinke, 138 S. Ct. 897, 906 (2018); Evenwel v. Abbott, 136 S. Ct. 1120, 1127 (2016); Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 570 U.S. 637, 663 (2013); Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Ass’n, 135 S. Ct. 1199, 1216 (2015); Arizona v. Inter- tribal Council, 133 S. Ct. 2247, 2258 (2013); ......
  • The Mischief Rule
    • United States
    • Georgetown Law Journal Nbr. 109-5, June 2021
    • June 1, 2021
    ...was intended to be remedied.”). 145. See, e.g., Smith v. Townsend, 148 U.S. 490, 495 (1893). 146. E.g., Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, 570 U.S. 637, 649 (2013) (“The statutory text expressly highlights the primary problem that the statute was intended to solve.”); Bulala v. Boyd, 389 S.E.2d ......

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