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'Like two abandonments': The impact on Baby Veronica as tug-of-war rages

Sep. 24, 2013 at 1:03 PM ET

Video: In a custody case that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, baby Veronica Capobianco was returned to her legal guardians from her biological father, a case that raised questions over tribal sovereignty and federal law. NBC’s Gabe Gutierrez reports.

She’s only 4, but Baby Veronica has already experienced the heartbreak and confusion of seeing her loved ones go away and having her world turned upside down -- twice.

Mental health experts said the girl, who is at the center of a legal tug-of-war between her adoptive parents and her biological father, may experience some emotional fallout from the custody battle that could linger as she grows older.

“It’s sort of like two abandonments,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, apsychiatrist and TODAY contributor. “It’s not to say that she cannot adapt or that she won’t be OK, (but) it’s a real loss. It’s a fairly traumatic event – twice.”

Most attachment develops early on in a child's life, said Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, a child psychologist in New York, and because the girl is so young, there may be a lot of confusion about what has happened, and why.

Veronica lived with Matt and Melanie Capobianco in South Carolina for the first two years of her life, but a court eventually returned her to her biological father, Dusten Brown, who cared for her for the next two years in Oklahoma. Brown, who signed paperwork relinquishing his parental rights in 2009, said he was not aware that his daughter had been put up for adoption.

He gave up custody Monday after the Oklahoma Supreme Court lifted a ruling keeping Veronica in the state while he tried to win permanent custody. She’s now back with the Capobiancos who are currently declining interview requests.

The twists and turns would be exhausting for an adult, never mind a 4-year-old, Saltz said.

What happens next depends on the girl’s personality and how naturally resilient she is. Some children go through a series of foster homes and emerge with few psychological scars, for example, while others who experience the same situation have trouble coping, Saltz noted.

“So a big piece of how she will fare has to do with biologically how hardy -- let’s say -- she is. And how the parents who are taking her, support her and help her cope with that loss, which doesn’t necessarily mean try to pretend that it never happened,” Saltz said.

"For this child, it would be better for this fight to be over and for her to be settled with parents."

The biggest challenge for the girl will be readjusting to the changed environment, because even though she had lived with the adoptive parents, she may not remember them well, said Julie Cederbaum, professor at the USC School of Social Work. 

"She might not be as familar with them....and she has been in the care of people who also cared about her," said Cederbaum. 

If she is traumatized by this latest twist in the custody battle, the girl might regress a bit in her development, Saltz noted. All the changes could boost the girl's levels of anxiety and worry, Hartstein noted.

"It is important for her adoptive family to provide reassurance and support, while being prepared for the possibility of increased outbursts or tantrums, fear at night, nightmares, and the like," Hartstein said.

But Saltz pointed out Veronica’s young age may be to her advantage. If she were 8, for example, she would be more aware, more engaged, more ensconced in the family, so she would have a harder time leaving, Saltz said.

Still, the distress of losing one set of loved ones, then another could open the girl up to lasting effects such as struggles with depression and abandonment issues when she’s an adult.

“If she keeps being removed, I think that could make it difficult for her to bond, essentially. You bond and you’re vulnerable and then you’re taken away,” Saltz said.

For the girl to thrive, it's key that one set of guardians doesn't badmouth the other so that Veronica isn't exposed to the bitterness and tension between her adoptive parents and her biological father, she added.

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