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Federal child custody law subject to varying interpretations

What happens when states interpret a federal law differently? In many cases, the party who is challenging the law must seek clarification through the courts. One recent child custody dispute concerns one court’s interpretation of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Massachusetts readers may be interested in following the case, which has now made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. A family from a southern state has asked the court to consider reversing a custody order made concerning their adopted Native American child.

The parents claim that some 12 states are split in how the federal Indian Welfare Act should be interpreted and applied. As a result, they are looking for the Court to reverse a family court order that forced them to relinquish custody of their 3-year-old daughter to her biological father. The father is a member of the Cherokee Nation.

The father, who had previously never seen the little girl, was granted custody last year by a family court. The court based its decision on its interpretation of the Indian Child Welfare Act. As a result of the court’s determination in favor of the father, the girl was sent to Oklahoma to live with her biological father.

It is unclear at this time when the Supreme Court justices will rule on the petition requesting that it consider the parent’s child custody case. If the case is heard, any decision could impact the manner in which states, including Massachusetts, interpret the Indian Child Welfare Act. There was no indication when the Supreme Court intends to consider or act on the petition before it.

Source:, “South Carolina couple appeals child custody case to Supreme Court,” Glenn Schroeder, Oct. 5, 2012

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