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U.S. court awards custody of American Indian girl to adoptive parents

Melanie and Matt Capobianco talk to reporters in their suburban neighborhood near Charleston, South Carolina June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Harriet
Melanie and Matt Capobianco talk to reporters in their suburban neighborhood near Charleston, South Carolina June 25, 2013. REUTERS/Harriet

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina's high court on Wednesday ordered a young girl living with her birth father at the center of an emotional, cross-cultural legal battle to be returned to her adoptive parents.

The order on the future of Veronica, 3, was greeted joyfully by her adoptive parents in South Carolina, who raised her from birth but were ordered 18 months ago by the same court to turn her over to her birth father because he is American Indian.

Veronica has been living with her birth father, Dusten Brown, in Oklahoma since 2011.

"We are thrilled that after 18 long months, our daughter finally will be coming home," adoptive parents Matt and Melanie Capobianco, who live in Charleston, said in a statement. "Our prayers have been answered."

The court's order on Wednesday instructs the state's family courts to finalize Veronica's adoption by the Capobiancos. It comes just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court in June threw out the earlier decision to grant custody to Brown, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

The decision brought harsh rebuke from the Cherokee Nation.

"Dusten Brown is a fit, loving parent and Veronica is, as the court previously defined, 'safe, loved, and cared for,'" Cherokee Nation said in a statement. "That should be enough."

Brown, who was not married to the birth mother, had argued that the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, intended to keep Native American children from being separated from their families, entitled him to have Veronica, who is 3/256th Cherokee.

He took custody at the end of 2011 when the girl was just over 2 years old, and South Carolina's highest court later upheld his custody.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Capobiancos. The Supreme Court threw out the South Carolina court decision awarding custody to the father and returned the case to the South Carolina state courts to sort out the adoption case.

Although adoption petitions have been filed by Brown and other family members in Oklahoma, the South Carolina court said on Wednesday that only the Capobiancos had filed for adoption in the correct jurisdiction and should get custody.

The couple had arranged with the girl's birth mother to adopt the girl before she was born and still maintain a relationship with the mother.

In its order, the court said it had erred in its 2011 judgment.

"There is absolutely no need to compound any suffering that Baby Girl (Veronica) may experience through continued litigation," wrote South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal.

But while the courts say the time has come for the tug-of-war to end, tribal lawyers say they'll continue the battle to let Brown keep custody of Veronica.

"We absolutely believe that it is in Veronica's best interest to stay with her father and we will do what we can to make sure that happens," said Chrissi Nimmo, assistant attorney general for the Cherokee Nation. "She not only has a father, she has a large family and pets and friends and a sibling."

(Editing by Karen Brooks and Lisa Shumaker)

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