Fletcher and Fort’s Rewritten Opinion in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

Fletcher and Fort posted “Intimate Choice and Autonomy: Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl,” forthcoming in CRITICAL RACE JUDGMENTS (Cambridge Univ. Press, eds. Bennett Capers, Devon Carbado, Robin A. Lenhart, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig) (forthcoming 2021).

As if there was any doubt, we have reached the opposite outcome as the Supreme Court did back in 2013. A few excerpts:

This case is about a little girl (Baby Girl) who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, like her father, grandparents, and a multitude of generations before her. American Indian tribal citizenship with a federally recognized tribe is a unique concept in American law. E.g., Santa Clara Pueblo v. Martinez, 436 U.S. 49, 55 (1978) (“[Indian tribes] have power to make their own substantive law in internal matters. . . .”). Tribal citizens are beneficiaries of the federal government’s trust relationship with Indian tribes, and the federal government has promised to tribal citizens for centuries to assist in the maintenance of tribal governments, cultures, and sovereignty. Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. 515, 556 (1831) (“[The Cherokee treaty], thus explicitly recognizing the national character of the Cherokees, and their right of self government; thus guarantying their lands; assuming the duty of protection, and of course pledging the faith of the United States for that protection; has been frequently renewed, and is now in full force.”).


The ethically dubious acts of the Petitioners in this case extends to this Court’s amici. Several amici invoked the racist dog whistle of referring to the Petitioners as the “only family” Baby Girl has ever known. E.g., Brief for Guardian Ad Litem, as Representative of Respondent Baby Girl, Supporting Reversal at 56 (“Indeed, it is hard to imagine what liberty interest is more important to a 27-month old child than maintaining the only family bonds she has ever known, absent a strong showing of necessity.”) (emphasis added); Brief of Amica Curiae Birth Mother in Support of Petitioners at 3 (“The decision below effectively negated Birth Mother’s decision to place Baby Girl with Adoptive Couple, and ripped Baby Girl from the only family she has ever known, in derogation of both Birth Mother’s and Baby Girl’s rights and expectations under state law.”) (emphasis added); Brief of Amici Curiae Bonnie and Shannon Hofer; Roger, Loreal, and Sierra Lauderbaugh; and Craig and Esther Adams in Support of Petitioners at 38 (“[T]he lower court took non-Indian Petitioners’ adopted Indian daughter from them – destroying the only family she has ever known.”) (emphasis added); Brief of Amici Curiae National Council for Adoption in Support of Petitioners at 13-14 (“ICWA is implemented in some cases to traumatize children by forcing them into completely unknown environments, traumatizing them by removal from the only family they’d ever felt a connection with and imposing the developmental delays that come with the traumatic removal from a secure attachment.”) (emphasis added).[1] It appears that for some of our amici, the “only family” that matters is the non-Indian Petitioners’ family. For these amici, the Indian family and other biological relatives are strangers and foreigners. The only pain and shame of removal and separation that matters is that of the non-Indian family. It is apparent the “only family” dog whistle is designed to distract our attention from the ever-present bias against Indian parents and relatives in the child welfare and adoption system. This we will not accept. As noted above, this Court long has been complicit in dehumanizing Indian people. In Professor Harris’ words, “[C]ourts established whiteness as a prerequisite to the exercise of enforceable property rights.” Harris, supra, at 1724. No longer. We additionally suspect that this form of advocacy implicates American Bar Association Rules of Professional Conduct 3.4 (Fairness to Opposing Party and Counsel), 3.5 (Impartiality & Decorum of the Tribunal), 4.4 (Respect for Rights of Third Persons), and 8.4 (Misconduct).

[1] One commentator even referred to the Cherokee family here, who descend from an Indigenous nation that has been present in this hemisphere since time immemorial, as “foreign.” Thomas Sowell, Indian Child Welfare Act does not protect kids, Denton Record-Chronicle, Feb. 1, 2018, at 6A (“This little girl is just the latest in a long line of Indian children who have been ripped out of the only family they have ever known and given to someone who is a stranger to them, often living on an Indian reservation that is foreign to them.”) (emphasis added).

ICWA/MIFPA Case from the Michigan Court of Appeals

We are wrapping up a training in Montana where every person in the room answered the ICWA pop quiz question: “Do ICWA protections apply to non-Native parents of Indian children?” correctly. Luckily the Michigan Court of Appeals answered it correctly as well. The Court of Appeals also provides an excellent discussion of why Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl did not apply to this, and similarly situated cases. There is a lot of useful language in this case for attorneys who continue to run into these issues in trial court across the country.

In re Beers/LeBeau-Beers

The trial court applied the appropriate heightened standards or
burdens when terminating respondent-mother’s parental rights, but it failed to apply them when terminating the parental rights of respondent-father, ostensibly because the Indian heritage of the children is solely through their mother’s bloodline. Respondent-father argues that ICWA and MIFPA standards govern the termination of his parental rights, considering that TB is his biological child and an Indian child, regardless of respondent-father’s personal heritage. We agree and conditionally reverse the termination of respondent-father’s parental rights to TB and remand for proceedings consistent with ICWA and MIFPA, as well as MCR 3.977(G).

In addition, however, the Court correctly analyzed whether Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl applied to this case, and raised this issue sua sponte “whether the heightened standards of ICWA, MIFPA, and MCR 3.977(G) should apply to the termination of respondent-father’s parental rights when he never had legal or physical custody rights in regard to TB.”:

Given the equivocal nature of Justice BREYER’s concurrence [in Adoptive Couple], it cannot truly be said that a majority of the United States Supreme Court created an inflexible rule for purposes of “continuing custody” analysis under § 1912(f), as well as the analysis of § 1912(d). And even assuming the contrary, it certainly is not clear whether the Supreme Court would impose the rule based solely on whether a parent had physical custody, in the strictest sense of the term under the law, where a custodial-like environment existed on a practical level absent any technical custodial rights.


We hold that under the particular facts of the instant case, which are entirely dissimilar to those in Adoptive Couple where the father effectively abandoned the child from birth and even in
utero, the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard applies to the termination of respondent-father’s parental rights, although he never had legal or physical custody rights, as those terms are legally employed. When DHHS’s petition was filed in August 2015 and for a period thereafter, respondent-father, respondent-mother, and TB lived together as a familial unit wherein respondent-father was providing some care and custody for TB. And petitioner was providing
reunification services. The family unit dissolved only when TB was removed by court order, although respondents remained together. The removal of TB discontinued the custodial arrangement that had existed with respect to both respondents and TB, if not in law, in practice.

Montana Supreme Court ICWA Case


The Montana Supreme Court continues to apply Baby Girl to absent fathers involved in state initiated proceedings, and not apply ICWA when terminating their rights.

Appellant Brief

Appellee Brief

Appellant Reply

Termination of Parental Rights Decision out of Wisconsin


The Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed a termination of parental rights decision under ICWA and WICWA using Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (finding abandonment/lack of continued custody by non-Indian father).

AK Bill Designed to Address Tununak ICWA Case Signed into Law by Governor Walker

Press Release here.

House Bill 200 was sponsored by Governor Walker, working in close collaboration with the Alaska Federation of Natives and Tribes. The bill is designed to correct and minimize recent legal barriers that were put in place for families interested in adopting Alaska Native children following the U.S Supreme Court Baby Girl Veronica decision and the Tununak litigation in the Alaska Supreme Court.

Bill here.

Law Review Article on Principal Briefs in Supreme Court Cases (Inc. Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl)


Given the decision of NCFA to appeal the recent win in the Eastern District of Virginia to the Fourth Circuit this may be useful (if frustrating) reading.

As always, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl materials, including briefs, law review articles, and cases, are here.

ICWA Case out of Texas Court of Appeals Declines to Extend Baby Girl

Here is the opinion.

The Court reversed a termination of parental rights because there was no qualified expert witness testimony. The State argued that because of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, the section of ICWA governing burden of proof and QEW (25 U.S.C. 1912(f)) did not apply. The Court rejected this argument.

In addition, the Court used the 2015 Guidelines to determine if a proper QEW testified:

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has created guidelines for state courts to use in Indian child custody proceedings. Bureau of Indian Affairs Guidelines for State Courts and Agencies in Indian Child Custody Proceedings, 80 Fed.Reg. 10147 (February 25, 2015). These guidelines do not have binding legislative effect, but Texas appellate courts have utilized the Guidelines when interpreting ICWA. See In re K.S., 448 S.W.3d 521, 529 (Tex.App.–Tyler 2014, pet. denied) (utilizing the earlier version of the Guidelines); In re J.J.C., 302 S.W.3d 896, 900 (Tex.App.–Waco 2009, no pet.)(same); In re R.R., 294 S.W.3d at 217 (same); see also Yavapai-Apache Tribe v. Mejia, 906 S.W.2d 152, 163-64 (Tex.App.–Houston [14th Dist.] 1995, orig. proceeding). The updated BIA Guidelines address the applicable standards of evidence.

The updated BIA Guidelines address the applicable standards of evidence. Section D.3(b) states:

The court may not order a termination of parental rights unless the court’s order is supported by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, supported by the testimony of one or more qualified expert witnesses, that continued custody of the child by the parent or Indian custodian is likely to result in serious harm to the child. [Emphasis added].

80 Fed.Reg. 10156. Thus, the challenged finding cannot stand unless it is supported by the testimony of a qualified expert witness.

Section D.4 pertains to the qualifications an expert witness must possess.


After reviewing the entire record, we conclude that the challenged finding is not supported by the testimony of a qualified expert witness. The caseworker, Lizette Frias, was not shown to possess the required knowledge or expertise. There is no evidence that Frias is a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe or another tribe, or that she is recognized by any tribe as having substantial experience in the delivery of child and family services to Indians. Further, there is no evidence that she has knowledge of the prevailing social and cultural standards and childrearing practices within the Oglala Sioux tribe.

Appellant Brief
State Brief

Florida Law Review: Prof. Atwood’s Response to Prof. Berger’s Adoptive Couple Article

Prof. Berger’s article here.

Prof. Atwood’s response here.

Professor Berger, however, does not address another danger inherent in the Court’s § 1915 holding. If applied to involuntary child welfare proceedings, the holding threatens to seriously undermine the effectiveness of ICWA. In a recent decision from the Alaska Supreme Court, the risks inherent in Adoptive Couple’s broad § 1915 holding were demonstrated. In Native Village of Tununak v. State Department of Health & Social Services, the court applied Justice Alito’s reasoning to a case that arose not as a private adoption but within the child welfare system. 13 The court held that the proposed adoption of a Native child by his Anglo foster parents could go forward without the necessary finding of good cause under ICWA because no other formal adoption petition had been filed.14 In that case the child’s maternal grandmother had taken only informal steps to request that she be allowed to adopt but had not filed a formal petition.15 As noted by the dissent, in rural Alaska where villages are remote and legal representation is nonexistent, the requirement that a formal adoption petition be filed may mean that potential ICWA placements will go undiscovered.16

Other articles and cases related to Adoptive Couple are available here.

Wyoming Supreme Court Applies Adoptive Couple Case in Termination Proceedings


We note that Appellant does not provide any discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl. In any event, however, we would agree with the reasoning of the Supreme Court and conclude that it applies with equal, if not greater, force in the present case. In this case, Appellant has not asserted that he has any Native American heritage that would qualify ARW as an “Indian child” under the ICWA. Rather, he claims that ARW “might be” an “Indian child” because ARW’s mother is “half Apache.” ARW’s mother, however, relinquished her parental responsibilities to Appellees soon after ARW’s birth, and she allowed them to exercise her custody and visitation rights after she was divorced from Appellant. Further, ARW’s mother consented to termination of her parental rights in the adoption proceedings. Accordingly, as in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, the “breakup” of an Indian family would not be precipitated by the termination of Appellant’s parental rights. We find no error in the district court’s conclusion that the ICWA did not apply to the termination proceedings.


Who Won American Indian Law and Policy, 2014, Second Round, Bracket 4 of 4

Now we move onto the Category 4 hurricane, groups.

#1 1491s v. #9 Cobell settlement beneficiaries

The 1491s love Jim Thorpe (I think) but not his captor, winning with 93 percent of the vote. Potheads didn’t get out of bed yesterday, so the Cobell settlement beneficiaries had an easy time garnering 73 percent of the vote.

I guess I forget, being in Michigan, that Cobell’s billions are pretty influential. This will be an interesting match-up. The 1491s better hope the beneficiaries aren’t out there buying votes.

#4 Gray wolves v. #5 Cohen Handbook

Ma’iingan feasted on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, with 63 percent of the vote. The entire state of New Mexico was no match for the Cohen Handbook leviathan, barely netting 29 percent of the vote.

Are the law profs hunters? Or will the wolves outthink them? Whozit gonna be?

#2 Tribal Supreme Court v.#10 Tribal In-House Counsel Association

TLPI nearly pulls off the largest upset of the tournament by defeating the Supreme Court Project but fades late, garnering only 44 percent of the vote. The young upstart TICA wins over NABA by one vote!

#3 Law Reviews on Adoptive Couple v.#6 Carcieri challengers

Well, sheer numbers mean something, plus an extra year to deliberate. Adoptive Couple defeats Bay Mills with 62 percent of the vote. Controversy reigns in the Carcieri v. payday lending crowd, but Carcieri must scare (or excite) voters more, winning with 59 percent of the vote.