I’m teaching Law and Society for the first time this summer. When we talked about what it means to do law and society scholarship on the first day of class, one of the themes we discussed was media and public perception of the law and courts. I used the case of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl to illustrate some of my points. This made for a fascinating discussion that is worth some reflection.
At best, the widespread media version of this case has been incomplete. At worst, it has been wildly misleading. I started by telling my class just this skewed media version of the case, not telling them that there was more to the case: the case involves an adoption dispute over a child of a Cherokee father and non-Indian mother. The father of the child was not married to the mother and did not live with her when the child was born. The mother judged that it was in the best interests of the child to put it up for adoption and began adoption proceedings with a couple in South Carolina. The father did not do anything until the adoption was nearly finalized, at which point he challenged the adoption. The father could challenge the adoption, despite never having been involved in the child’s life, because of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). ICWA gives additional protections to Indian parents and was designed to prevent state agencies from taking Indian children away from their parents / tribes.
I presented this version of the facts to my class and they filled in their assumptions about the rest: the father did not care about the child; he would not be a good father; he was disengaged and had his own priorities; he seems to have been only interested in the publicity this case would bring for himself or his tribe; we should trust the mother’s judgment on adoption being best. The class was sympathetic to the goals of the ICWA, but did not think it should rule in this case. Essentially, the class judged the dad to be a deadbeat dad who was not going to raise the child properly.
The problem is that this story is wildly misleading. After our initial discussion of the case, I filled in more details for my class. Before the child’s birth, the mother represented the child’s race as Hispanic, not Indian, on the adoption form. She also misspelled the father’s name and provided an incorrect birth date, so the Cherokee tribe failed to identify him as a member or notify him. Once the child was born and adoption proceedings began, the father was finally notified days before he was to be deployed to Iraq (he is in the military). When he learned about the adoption proceedings, the father immediately objected, but could not respond further for a year while he was deployed over seas. And in fact, the South Carolina courts had already determined that the father would make a good, caring father and that it was in the child’s best interests to be raised with him. (See the National Indian Child Welfare Association’s webpage on the case for more details.)
Even as I began to fill in these other details, students continued to resist: Okay, so the father was not informed about the adoption the way he should have been, but did he really care about the child? Maybe the mother knew he would be a deadbeat dad? Maybe the father’s military deployment is a valid explanation for why he wasn’t involved in the child’s life for a year, but what was he going to do now? How would he raise the child if he was in the military? Even though the mother planned to put the child up for adoption, and the father wanted to raise the child himself, the class’s sympathies initially remained with the mother. She must know something that we don’t.
As we discussed the full details of the case more, the class’s sympathies shifted. By the end of our discussion, everyone agreed that the father should retain custody of the child. Giving the father custody would protect the original goals of the ICWA: to maintain the integrity of Indian families and Indian tribes. This was really effective for making the point of how media skews public perception of the Supreme Court and the law. One student had read about the case in the New York Times and verified that my initial description of the case jived with what he had read before. I admitted that I had also accepted the mainstream media depiction of the case until recently. The class realized that this wasn’t just a case of the media leaving out some minor details. The choice of facts completely skewed the public narrative of the case.
Partially this speaks to the power of the media. Even though only one student in the class had actually read about the case before I discussed it in class, everyone wanted to believe that the media reporting on it would be generally accurate. The class quickly accepted the general principle that the media might present inaccurate stories, but they still raised lots of questions about this particular case before they accepted that the narrative of this case was inaccurate.
But this also speaks to the power of the deadbeat dad trope. I think it wasn’t simply that the class wanted to believe the media in general. More specifically, it was a lot easier to believe that the mother would know what was best for the child than that the father would. The incomplete facts easily fit into a trope of the father as not caring and disengaged. Overall, it was a great classroom discussion that brought to life for my students the complex ways culture matters to how people think about the law.