The rare ruling is the latest twist in an ongoing legal battle between Afghan and American couples over a three-year-old girl.
In a highly unusual decision, a Virginia state court judge overturned a US Marine’s adoption of an Afghan war orphan more than a year after he took the three-year-old girl away from the Afghan couple who raised him.
But the girl’s future remains uncertain. For now, she will remain with Marine Major Joshua Mast and his wife, Stephanie, under a temporary custody order they obtained before the adoption. The Masts will again have to prove in court that they should be granted permanent adoption.
Despite the uncertainty, Thursday’s decision was a welcome move for the Afghan couple, who were identified by the Afghan government as the child’s family in February 2020 and raised her for 18 months.
The Masts quickly left the court after the hearing, flanked by their lawyers. Parties are prohibited from commenting by a gag order.
The ongoing dispute has raised alarm bells at the highest levels of government – from the White House to the Taliban – after an Associated Press news agency investigation in October revealed how Mast had become determined to save the baby and bring her home as an act of Christian faith.
But so far, the adoption order has remained in place.
“There has never been a case like this,” Judge Claude V Worrell Jr said Thursday.
The girl, who will turn four this summer, was a baby when she was found injured in the rubble after a US-Afghan military raid in a rural part of the country in September 2019.
She spent more than five months in a US military hospital before the Afghan government and the International Committee of the Red Cross determined that she had living relatives and reunited her with them.
Unbeknownst to them, Mast learned of the baby’s existence while she was hospitalized and decided that he and his wife should be her parents.
Masts had previously told Virginia Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore that she was the daughter of passing “terrorists” who died in action and therefore a stateless orphan.
Mast claimed the Afghan government was prepared to relinquish jurisdiction over her, although it never did. Moore granted her adoption.
The Masts first contacted the couple in Afghanistan and offered to help with the girl’s medical treatment. After the The United States Army Withdrew from Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban in 2021, the Masts helped the couple evacuate to the United States.
Once they arrived, Mast used the adoption order to take the child and the Afghan couple have not seen her since.
The Masts claim in court papers that they legally adopted the child and that the Afghan couple’s accusations that they kidnapped her are “outrageous” and “undeserved”. They repeatedly declined to comment to the AP.
Judge Worrell, who took over the case after Judge Moore retired in November, said the Afghan couple “were the de facto parents when they arrived in the United States” and that their due process had been violated.
Worrell also said on the bench that the Masts knew things they never told in court, particularly about what was happening in Afghanistan at the time the Virginia judge granted the adoption.
He said he was not sure it was intentional but “the fact is that the court did not have all the information known to [the Masts] at the time of order entry.
The decision is one more twist in what is already a standout affair.
“Once an adoption is final, it is extremely difficult and rare for it to be overturned,” said Virginia attorney Stanton Phillips.
“It’s really, really unusual,” said adoption attorney Barbara Jones. “You just don’t hear about what’s going on.”
A US Department of Defense The spokesperson told the AP on Thursday that the department was aware of the decision and referred the news agency to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
Another hearing is scheduled for June.