OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The South Carolina couple who adopted a Cherokee girl at the center of a yearslong custody dispute came to Oklahoma last month vowing not to leave without the child.
On Monday night, Matt and Melanie Capobianco took custody of 4-year-old Veronica, hours after the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that it didn't have jurisdiction over a case that had already gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and had raised questions about jurisdictions, tribal sovereignty and a federal law mean to keep Native American tribes together.
"She's safely in her parents' arms," said Jessica Munday, a friend and spokeswoman for the Charleston, S.C., family.
Supporters of Dusten Brown, the girl's biological father, say he also put up a hard-fought battle for the right to keep Veronica, but that he "willfully cooperated" with the court's order.
"We are deeply, deeply saddened by the events of today," Cherokee Nation Attorney General Todd Hembree said in a written statement, "but we will not lose hope. Veronica Brown will always be a Cherokee citizen, and although she may have left the Cherokee Nation, she will never leave our hearts."
Hembree said law enforcement did not supervise the transfer. After Brown and his wife, who is not Veronica's biological mother, packed the girl's bags, Brown told her he loved her and a tribal attorney drove Veronica a quarter mile to where the Capobiancos were waiting.
The transfer came hours after the Oklahoma's highest court dissolved a temporary court order that had kept the child in the Cherokee Nation with her father and his family. Until the Monday night transfer, the Cherokee Nation had insisted the girl would remain with the tribe.
Hembree said the Capobiancos promised that Brown, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, "will be allowed to remain an important part of Veronica's life."
Munday was not sure when the Capobiancos planned to return to South Carolina with Veronica but said she felt they were now free to do that at any time. She said Veronica has spent some time with the couple recently and did remember them.
"It was smooth. There wasn't any danger. ... Hopefully everyone can focus on healing now," Munday said.
Veronica's biological mother, who is not Native American, was pregnant when she put the child up for adoption. Veronica lived with the Capobiancos from birth until she was 27 months old, when Brown was awarded custody under the Indian Child Welfare Act. But a U.S. Supreme Court decision later went against Brown, and a South Carolina court finalized the Capobiancos' adoption of her earlier this year. Brown had then turned to Oklahoma's courts for relief.
When the Oklahoma Supreme Court bowed out, it left in place a South Carolina court order validating the Capobiancos' adoption and a Cherokee Nation tribal court directive that said the girl could remain with family members of Brown's while he was undergoing National Guard training.
The Oklahoma court did not explain its decision to lift its stay Monday.
Brown and his family claim the Indian Child Welfare Act mandates that the child be raised within the Cherokee Nation. The law was passed in 1978 with the intent of reducing the high rates of Native American children being adopted by non-Native American families.
A South Carolina court cited the law when it awarded custody of Veronica to Brown in 2011, but the U.S. Supreme Court this year said the law did not apply because he had been absent from the child's life.
"The legal system has failed this child and American Indians as well. Our prayers are with everyone concerned, but most of all with Veronica," Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, said in a written statement Monday night.
Meg Kinnard contributed reporting from Columbia, S.C.