Oct. 7 2013 03:35 PM

Looking back at Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl'

Aaryn Belfer

The court case that had me transfixed through much of the summer was the forebodingly named Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl. Maybe you've heard of it?

This is one of those epic custody brawls, between adoptive parents Matt and Melanie Capobianco and biological father Dusten Brown, that is bound to end up as a made-for-television movie. Previous based-on-true-soaps (think Baby Jessica and Baby Richard) have ended with the children returned to their natural parents, people generally depicted as poorer, trashier and less well-educated than the adoptive parent saviors.

This story, about Baby Veronica, has those elements with a different ending that nevertheless upholds the narrative favorable to adoptive parents—a narrative, incidentally, that I reject. No saviors in this household. Here's my (much-simplified) screenplay.

Scene 1: Pregnant woman has falling out with her unborn child's father. She makes an adoption plan for the child and colludes with an adoption agency known for questionable ethics, to intentionally exclude the birthfather. Large amounts of money change hands. Wealthy white couple is present at child's birth, takes child home and begins raising baby as their own.

Scene 2: Immediately after realizing he's been tricked into signing relinquishment papers oddly titled, "Acceptance of Service," biological father, a member of the Cherokee Nation, fights for custody while deployed in Iraq. Multiple courts rule in his favor based on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a law designed to keep native families intact. After 23 months, child is transferred to his custody. 

Scene 3: Wealthy white couple hires fancy lawyers and PR firm and begins sustained media blitz, during which they sue, publicly smear, charge with crimes and generally denigrate the biological parent of the child they profess to love. (Cut to clips of Dr. Phil and Anderson Cooper types fawning over sorrowful couple.) Case goes to U.S. Supreme Court, which dismisses ICWA and sends case back to lower courts. Cherokee Nation and other tribes fret about the larger implications of ruling and the future commodification of their kids.

Scene 4: Lower courts finalize adoption. Biological father exhausts legal options, even puts shared custody on the table. (King Solomon rolls over in his grave.) Adoptive parents refuse to negotiate. (Are they Republicans? Stay tuned for the sequel.*

Scene 5: Clock ticks on biological father's options until it finally runs out 18 months after he's taken legal custody of his own child. Broken hearted, biological father surrenders his child. (King Solomon rolls again.)

* Teaser to sequel: Not satisfied to head into the sunset with their "daughter," wealthy white couple sues biological father for fines, attorneys fees and expenses to the tune of $500,000.

"It occurs to me," wrote a friend of mine on Facebook, "that some might assume that because I am an adoptive parent, I am always 'rooting for' the adoptive parents in disputed cases. So I want to say for the record that I am deeply saddened by the case... in which a couple has stubbornly insisted on adopting a child whose Native American biological father did not wish her to be adopted." 

Yes. This. Exactly. 

Certainly, I can empathize with the Capobiancos' plight. It was Matt Capobianco, and not Dusten Brown, who cut the umbilical cord. I can only imagine the grief and devastation that must have followed the removal of Veronica from their home nearly two years later. It had to have been unbearable. Nauseating. Suffocating. It had to have been a death.

And yet, I view what happened to be kidnapping, sanctioned by the U.S. courts. I am appalled and embarrassed by the Capobiancos' actions and by the indignity they brought to this case and to the reputation of adoptive parents. The fight that ensued revealed in them an entitled ugliness and a lack of understanding about what's best for a child. Sure, they can provide a loving home with the many accoutrements that a guy on a military salary wouldn't be able to match. 

But beyond the material things—and the pesky detail of the biological father loving and wanting to parent his child—are the ties to heritage, family, culture and history. These essential parts of a human being are the casualties in adoption, and we adoptive parents have a responsibility to lessen the trauma by honoring them. It's our job to build connection, not destroy it. At the very core of adoption is loss, and children have no say in the matter. 

"I don't want to go! I don't want to go!î Veronica shouted when being removed from her father's arms. For now, her voice can be subdued and soothed and silenced with cookies and toys and welcome-home celebrations. For now, the Capobiancos have written Vernonica's story. Whether they will mitigate the damage they've done—will they let Brown see his child? Will they nurture her relationship with her birth family?—remains to be seen. 

Regardless, kids don't stay kids forever. Once she's old enough to do a Google search—in 10 years, say—she can learn all about Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl, and the battle her parents waged against her. She will get to write her own story and will be free to choose whether to be in a relationship with the people who took her from her family.

If the adult adoptees I've heard speak are telling their truths—and I know they are—I can't imagine that future relationship will be something Adoptive Couple ever dreamed of.

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at aarynbelfer.com and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.


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