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Utah Couple Win Guardianship of Navajo Boy

October 30, 1987|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

A Utah couple whose adoption of a Navajo boy became a nationally watched test case of Indian tribal courts' jurisdiction won permanent guardianship of the child Thursday in an out-of-court settlement.

The settlement, worked out before the conclusion of a three-day hearing in Navajo tribal court in Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Navajo Nation, means that 9-year-old Michael Carter will remain with the Mormon couple with whom he has lived for the last seven years.

"We got what we wanted," said Richard Johnson, attorney for Dan and Pat Carter of Spanish Fork, Utah. "We really wanted to win legal adoption, but this is really no different the way we structured it."

Adoption Ruled Illegal

The fate of Jeremiah Holloway, whom the Carters renamed Michael, has been uncertain since last year, when the Utah Supreme Court ruled his adoption by the Carters in Utah state court illegal. Michael, who had not seen his natural mother since he was 2, said he wanted to remain with the Carters.

Under the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, the court found, only a Navajo tribal court could decide custody of a tribal child. The Child Welfare Act was passed to stem the exodus of Indian children from their tribal culture.

The boy's case became a test of the limits of that law because his natural mother initially agreed to put her son up for adoption and only years later, after intervention by tribal authorities, changed her mind.

Leaning Toward Custody

According to those involved in the closed proceeding, the case was settled when it became clear that Navajo Tribal Children's Court Judge Calvin Yazzie was leaning toward granting the Carters custody.

"They presented a formal written settlement offer to us this morning," said the Carters' attorney Johnson, who rejected the offer. But negotiations gained momentum when Michael/Jeremiah's natural mother suggested the two families sit down out of sight of attorneys and talk.

Under the court settlement, Cecilia Saunders can visit her son, who will be renamed Michael Holloway Carter, for two weeks in 1988, a month in 1989 and six weeks in 1990, after which Michael will decide how much contact he has.

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