Adoptive parents awarded custody of girl, 3, but 'nobody showed'

A bitter custody battle between a South Carolina couple and an Iraq war veteran has taken another twist. At the center of it is a little girl who had been adopted by the couple, but then handed back to her birth father after a court decided in his favor almost two years ago.

After fighting the case all the way to the Supreme Court, Melanie and Matt Capobianco were once again awarded custody of “baby girl Veronica” last week. But the child's birth father, Dusten Brown, has not complied with the court’s order to hand the little girl over to the couple.

At the start of the five-day transition that had been planned to help the little girl adjust to the transfer from Brown back to the Capobiancos, “nobody showed,” Matt Capobianco told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Friday. “They could have asked for a different time, a different day. But none of his attorneys did. We assumed that he was going to show. But now I guess we assume they knew all along that he wasn’t going to show.”

Clearly distraught, Melanie Capobianco told Guthrie, “The last time we saw her was 19 months ago when we had to turn her over.”

Brown has had the little girl since 2011, when a South Carolina court awarded him custody from the Capobiancos, citing a federal law that seeks to keep Native American children with their birth parents. The Supreme Court overthrew that decision last week, saying that the federal statute did not apply in this case.

“They said because he had not been part of the child’s life, he was not entitled to say ‘this child is now being deprived of my heritage,’” Randy Kessler, a family law expert, explained to NBC in a taped report that preceded Guthrie's interview with the Capobiancos.

The Capobiancos’ heartbreaking journey began back in 2009, when Veronica’s birth parents split up. The child's biological mother, Christy Maldonado, asked Brown to give her custody of the baby. He agreed, first in a text message that read, “I think I will just sign my rites away,” and then later in a legal document that he signed.

Brown says that he was about to deploy to Iraq at the time and never realized that his daughter might be put up for adoption.

“I thought I was just signing for (Maldonado) to have full custody, so that she could take care of my daughter while I was gone,” Brown told NBC’s Kristen Welker in the taped report. “I’ll fight for her until I have no more fight in me.”

His wife, Robin Brown, is fully behind him. “We are not giving up on her,” she told Welker.

But Lori Alvino McGill, a lawyer representing the Capobiancos who joined them on TODAY Friday, insisted that the case ought to be closed.

“This has been fully litigated,” she told Guthrie. “It went all the way up to the Supreme Court and back”

As for Brown’s claims that he didn’t understand what he was signing, McGill said, “The fact of the matter is that he doesn’t even contest that he was fully prepared and aware of the fact that he was giving up all parental rights — just that he expected Veronica’s birth mother, Christy, to raise Veronica herself. Veronica had been born for months and months and months by the time he learned of the adoption, and the reason for that is he was out of their lives and she was pregnant facing an unplanned pregnancy as a single mother of two — and she had to come up with a plan for her child.”

The Capobiancos say they still want to try to ease the transition for little Veronica — despite the fact that there wasn’t much time for them to adjust when they were told to hand her over to Brown.

“We obviously want it to go as smoothly as possible,” Matt Capobianco told Guthrie. “We don’t want any trauma. They gave us an hour and a half — or they gave her an hour and a half. We’re giving her five days. That was the plan, to do it gradually.”

The Capobiancos are still hoping to avoid another tough transition for their little girl.

“They cut off all communication,” Melanie told Guthrie. “(Baby Veronica) didn’t know what happened to us. And we don’t plan to do that with her.”