From Spelling Error to SCOTUS

Hidden from public scrutiny in between decisions on voting rights and same-sex marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision yesterday that limited the scope of protections afforded to Native American biological parents by the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA).

Click here to read the Chronicle’s story on the decision. Discourse on the outcome of Adoptive Couple v Baby Girl will appropriately focus on its impact on ICWA, and how courts will factor it into child welfare decision.

Youth Services Insider would just like to take a quick moment to point out one other thing it finds interesting about this case:

It all happened because of a misspelling.

The mother of Veronica, the baby girl in this case, decided to put the child up for adoption, and mentioned to her lawyer that she thought the biological father was part Cherokee.

That alone should probably give ICWA fans pause: the law’s involvement here was predicated basically on someone sort of, kind of remembering that a parent was maybe part Native American.

The mother’s lawyer, hearing that the dad might be Native American, then contacted the Cherokee Nation to see if he was in fact enrolled.

The lawyer then submitted an incorrectly spelled name and, predictably, the nation responded back that they could not verify the member. With that information in hand, the mother began the adoption process.

Months later, with his daughter already living with her potential new family, the father was finally notified and quickly challenged the adoption once he realized it was happening.

Is there any doubt he would have made that challenge to the adoption at the outset? Before an adoptive couple that still might lose their child got involved? Before a biological father willing to care for his child had to spend four years in the court to do so, and then losing?

Everything else about this case is fraught with emotion and philosophy. But those familiar with the child welfare system should uniformly gnash their teeth at yet another story where some procedural snag changed the course of lives.

Set aside the misspelling for the moment; pretend it didn’t happen. What if the mom had remembered correctly that he was part Native American, but was wrong that he was part Cherokee? The lawyer would have called the wrong nation for verification.

Now, back to the misspelling part. You know who might have known how to spell the father’s name? The father!

There is much made of the fact that the father told the mother over text that he’d rather relinquish his parental rights than provide child support. It does seem odd, conversely, that neither the mother nor her lawyer thought it prudent to tell him that adoption was the plan.

YSI has no idea how much paperwork and protocol goes into a typical ICWA-related matter; probably less than in this case. But add this case to the pile of evidence that, as technology improves the precision of business all around, youth services is still prone to basic clerical errors leading to disastrous outcomes.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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