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South Carolina governor seeks return of Native American girl now

South Carolina's Governor Nikki Haley gestures as she address the RedState Gathering of conservative activists in Charleston, South Carolina
South Carolina's Governor Nikki Haley gestures as she address the RedState Gathering of conservative activists in Charleston, South Carolina

By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley on Wednesday called on the Oklahoma Supreme Court to order immediately a 3-year-old Native American girl returned to a South Carolina couple who adopted her, escalating a bitter custody dispute with the girl's biological father.

"This matter should come to an end, now," Haley said in a document prepared for the Oklahoma high court and given to Reuters by the governor's office.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last week that the girl known as "Baby Veronica," who will turn 4 next week, will not immediately be transferred from her Oklahoma biological father, Dusten Brown, despite other court rulings ordering him to give her up to adoptive parents Matt and Melanie Capobianco of Charleston, South Carolina.

"Under the laws of South Carolina and Oklahoma, the minor child should be immediately returned to the Capobiancos' physical custody and care," Haley said.

The case has highlighted overlapping parental claims in two states, and the clash between a Native American culture seeking to protect children from being adopted outside their tribes and U.S. legal safeguards for adoptive parents.

The situation became so emotionally wrenching that Haley and her counterpart, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin, spoke by phone last month and tried to get the two families to work out a custody deal outside the courts.

No agreement has been reached and Haley's court appeal on Wednesday suggested that politicians are increasingly being drawn into the legal dispute.

Haley said Brown, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, is "criminally withholding" Veronica from her adoptive parents in defiance of the courts.

"Mr. Brown does not intend to comply with any order of the Oklahoma state courts in this matter," Haley's filing said.

Veronica's birth mother, who is not Native American, arranged the adoption with the Capobiancos before the girl was born. Veronica lived with them after her birth in 2009. Brown intervened in 2010 before the adoption process was final, and a South Carolina family court ordered that Veronica be turned over to Brown in December 2011.

Brown has argued that when he gave up parental rights to the girl's birth mother, he did not realize she would put the child up for adoption.

Brown, who was not married to the birth mother, argued that the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 allowed him to have Veronica, who is 3/256th Cherokee.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling and decided the act did not apply in Veronica's situation. The adoption by the Capobiancos was finalized in July.

Veronica has been staying with relatives on Cherokee tribal land in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Cherokee Nation courts have also been involved in the custody battle.

A gag order has been placed on the parties involved in the case.

(Reporting by Harriet McLeod; Editing by Greg McCune and Cynthia Osterman)

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