Indian father's parental rights in doubt in Supreme Court hearing

Child custody decisions involving the question of fathers' rights are some of the most controversial to make headlines, given that family law courts have in most cases sided with the mother. But the child custody dispute recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court is especially complicated because it involves an adoptive family, a mother who approved the adoption and a Cherokee Indian father who wants to use the Indian Child Welfare Act to assert his parental rights.

The act is a federal law passed in 1978, and its purpose is "to prevent the breakup of the Indian family." The law could potentially apply to family court cases in New York and throughout the country.

In this particular case, the biological mother decided to let another couple adopt her unborn daughter after the mother and the biological father broke up. The father, who has Cherokee ancestors and who was set to be deployed to Iraq, had moved to another state, and initially he approved of the adoption, which was pending when the child was four months old.

But within a week of signing an approval, the father decided to seek custody of his daughter, claiming that he was mistaken about the approval documents and didn't understand what he had signed.

Complicating matters is that the adoptive parents were at the biological mother's bedside when the child was born, and the adoptive couple even provided support to the mother while the biological father was away.

After the adoptive parents took the little girl back to their home state, a family court ruled in favor of the biological father. The state Supreme Court in turn upheld that ruling, citing the biological father's being a Cherokee Indian. The state Supreme Court concluded that the biological father still had parental rights.

Now the U.S. Supreme Court, which doesn't often hear family law cases, appears split over whether the Indian Child Welfare Act is applicable in this case. It was pointed out that, in terms of genealogical lineage, the biological father is "three 256ths" Cherokee.

New Yorkers with family law and fathers' rights concerns will want to follow up this summer when the high court makes its decision.

Source: New York Daily News, "Supreme Court hears custody dispute over adopted girl," April 17, 2013

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