By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Bringing up baby: Nineteen months ago, Kelley Cato and his wife, Tracy, knew their lives were about to get a lot more stressful. That's just part of life with a new baby: An infant's job description is pretty much just to cry, whine, demand food at odd hours and poop on themselves and others. They're pretty much like Congress that way. (How hard does someone gotta work around here to get that call from Leno?) But when the Catos, who live in Corinth, adopted day-old Jacob, they had no idea just how harrowing life would soon become, all because Jacob's birth mother was a Cherokee Indian.
We first wrote about the Catos in June 2006 ("The Parent Trap"), a little less than six months after the Cherokee Nation began court proceedings to get custody of Jacob. A 1978 federal law called the Indian Child Welfare Act gives the Cherokee Nation the right to try to raise all orphaned or abandoned Indian babies in the tribe in order to preserve their cultural heritage. Children are often placed in foster care or with distant relatives. Jacob was just a few weeks old when his adoptive parents learned they might be forced to give him up.
But now, the Catos have done the near-impossible: They've beaten the ICWA. Last week, a U.S. court awarded permanent custody of Jacob to the Catos.
"We're so excited," Kelley Cato told Buzz in a phone interview. "Whenever we started, it didn't look like there was any chance of beating that law." But the ICWA has a clause that makes exceptions for the best interest of the child. (What the law doesn't do, apparently, is acknowledge this question: If you raise a Zulu baby in, say, Irving, from Day 1 to his 18th birthday, is that baby Zulu or Texan? Does culture attach to genes?) In any case, the Catos hired expert witnesses to testify about attachment disorder, arguing that if Jacob were removed from the only family he'd known, he'd soon develop behavioral and mood problems. The trial was the culmination of nearly two years of frustration and worry for the Catos.
"Every time we'd go to the mailbox," says Cato, "we paused for a second before opening it." Cato says he said a prayer each time: "Lord, please don't let there be a letter saying they're going to take away my son."
Though the Cherokee Nation can still appeal the court's decision, Kelley Cato says he feels as if a heavy burden has been lifted off his shoulders. Now, he can get back to stressing about little things. Like fatherhood. "Whenever you're faced with losing your kid, all that other stuff just kind of becomes trivial," he says.