In a 3-2 decision, the justices said the act confers custodial preference to the child's father, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
Chief Justice Jean Toal wrote that it is with "a heavy heart that we confirm the family court order" but that preference must be given to the American Indian parent under federal law.
The court used as its guide the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, passed in 1978 because of the high number of Indian children that were being removed from their homes by public and private agencies. The act gives the child's tribe and family the right to have a say in decisions affecting the child.
In this case, now-2-year-old Veronica was adopted by a South Carolina family who live just outside Charleston. They attended the girl's birth and cared for her thereafter.
The girl's father, Dusten Brown, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, later went to court seeking custody because he had not been notified of the pending adoption nor given his consent. He was on a military base and was soon shipped overseas. A South Carolina court awarded him custody of his child, and he arrived in Charleston on New Year's Eve with his parents to take the girl back to Oklahoma.