Native American advocates are denouncing talk show host Philip “Dr. Phil” McGraw for a recent episode dealing with the adoption of the daughter of a member of the Cherokee Nation.
A spokesperson for the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA) told The Raw Story McGraw and his production staff slanted the Oct. 18 episode to portray the child’s father, Dusten Brown, in a negative light, despite assurances to the contrary both before and after the episode was taped in late September.
Attempts to get a comment from Peteski Productions, the company that produces The Dr. Phil Show, were not returned.
Neither Brown, a former U.S. Army serviceman, nor the child’s birth mother, Christina Maldonado, appeared on the program. The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled on July 26 that Brown be awarded custody of the child, Veronica Maldonado, citing the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) (PDF). A petition to adopt the girl, named Veronica, by a South Carolina couple, Matt and Melanie Capobianco, was denied on November 25, 2011, and the child was returned to Brown’s custody on Dec. 31.
“We provided them with all of the information and resources that we had at our disposal regarding the case,” said Nicole Adams, executive communications manager for NICWA. “We repeatedly, repeatedly expressed our concern that the sensational aspect of the story that we had seen perpetuated by the public relations firm representing the Capobiancos would take priority over presenting the facts of the case. We were reassured repeatedly that Dr. Phil actually called his staff together and said, ‘we need to get the facts of this case right.’ That’s why we were particularly disappointed.”
Enacted in 1978 as a response to “the alarmingly high number of Indian children being removed from their homes by both public and private agencies,” the law states that if a child or its parent is at least eligible for tribal membership, the tribe has the right to be part of the adoption proceedings. Brown is a member of the Cherokee nation, something court records indicate Maldonado tried to conceal.
“Mother testified that she knew ‘from the beginning’ that Father was a registered member of the Cherokee Nation, and that she deemed this information ‘important’ throughout the adoption process,” the court’s opinion (PDF) said. “Further, she testified she knew that if the Cherokee Nation were alerted to Baby Girl’s status as an Indian child, ‘some things were going to come into effect, but [she] wasn’t for [sic] sure what.'”
Nonetheless, the decision stated that Maldonado informed an adoption agency that the child’s father was Native American.
By the time of the high court’s verdict, the child, who was born in Oklahoma, had been living with the Capobiancos in South Carolina. Court records said Maldonado testified that she told the couple about Brown’s Cherokee heritage.
However, the court said, when Maldonado wrote the Cherokee Nation’s child welfare division to ask about Brown’s membership, she misspelled his first name and supplied the wrong birthday, which prevented his membership from being verified. The court’s decision also said that the Capobiancos hired an attorney to determine if Veronica was Native American, but not Brown; Melanie Capobianco testified that the agency’s note about Brown’s heritage was “probably … something I read and didn’t think twice about it.”
The Capobiancos have filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court and created a website, Save Veronica, detailing their account of the case, saying Brown agreed not to contest the adoption until the child was four months old. The court’s decision said that, though the Capobiancos filed their motion to adopt the child in September 2009, Brown was not notified of their intentions until January 2010, days before he was scheduled for deployment to Iraq.
[Image by House Committee on Education and the Workforce Democrats via Flickr, Creative Commons licensed]