Tevlin: Adoption case from long ago brings lessons for one now

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2012 - 8:16 AM

In 1994, Minneapolis attorney Mark Fiddler was involved in what he thought at the time was a significant victory for American Indians in the Minnesota Supreme Court. As executive director of the Indian Child Welfare Law Center, he opposed the adoption of Sierra Goodman to Eugene and Carol Campbell because she was Indian and they were not.

Fiddler, who is part Indian, believed that if the Campbells were able to adopt Goodman, it would violate the Indian Child Welfare Act, which had been passed because of widespread removal of Indian children from their homes in the 1980s. Indian children were better off if they remained with families of their own culture, the courts agreed.

Fiddler still believes keeping an Indian child with the tribe is a good idea if possible. But experience has taught him that in some cases, the desires of the Indian tribe to keep children in the tribe overrules the best interests of the child. He is now the attorney for a couple in South Carolina who recently lost their adopted Indian daughter because of the ICWA, and he's reaching out to an unusual person to help him bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court: Sierra Goodman (now McGaughey).

"I wrote to [Sierra] and told her that my opposition to her adoption was well-intentioned," said Fiddler, "but it was wrong."

The Campbells doted on Sierra and despite some problems, fell in love with her. But when they tried to officially adopt her, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe sued and won.

After Fiddler's "victory" in 1994, Sierra was taken from the Campbells. She bounced in and out of more than 20 foster homes and 13 schools. She ran away many times, trying to get back to the Campbells.

When Sierra and her sisters were removed, Sierra wrote to the court: "We love them so much. You are mean, crude and evil like the devil."

As a teen, Sierra dabbled in Satanism and eventually hooked up with a seriously disturbed young man, Darryl Headbird. In a bizarre plot chronicled in this newspaper, Headbird murdered his father, then tried to ambush and murder the Campbells, stabbing both of them before running off. Headbird was sentenced to prison, and Sierra was charged with aiding in the assault.

Despite the incident, the Campbells stood by Sierra and eventually were allowed to adopt her. She is now 28 and living in northern Minnesota. She has now agreed to use her life story to support Fiddler's efforts to amend the ICWA to make sure that a child's best interest is considered by courts when they place Indian children.

Fiddler's current case is similar to Sierra's. He represents the Capobiancos, who adopted "Baby Veronica" Rose at birth. Veronica's mother placed her for adoption, and the father had never met her. The Capobiancos were even present at birth and cut the umbilical cord.

Veronica’s birth father waited four months after her birth to file for custody, and didn’t pay child support for 16 months. The South Carolina Supreme Court found in favor of the birth father, solely because of the ICWA, and Veronica now lives with a virtual stranger.

The case has gotten national attention, and legal experts think it has a good chance of being heard in the country's highest court. Monday, prominent Washington, D.C., attorney Lisa Blatt agreed to take Fiddler's case. She has brought 30 cases to the U.S. Supreme Court -- the record for a female attorney -- and won 29.

"We have found out so much about childhood attachment since [1994]," Fiddler said. "We didn't know then what we now know about attachment theory. The intent of the ICWA was good at the time, but I think some courts are making what's best for the tribe paramount, instead of what's best for the children. We need to take a step back and ask if that's what the law intended."

So Fiddler is taking a two-pronged approach. He's hoping to get the Supreme Court interested in hearing the Veronica Rose case, while trying to change the law in Congress to provide some consistency among states.

"Some people were sounding alarms about taking children away from their adoptive parents way back when I was fighting Sierra," Fiddler said. "My transformation got me to where I am today. We need to start looking at the evidence and applying current child development theory."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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