The rare ruling is the latest twist in an ongoing legal battle between Afghan and US couples for three-year-old girl.
In a highly unusual ruling, a state court judge in Virginia has voided a United States 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 raising her.
But the girl’s future remains uncertain. For now, she will stay with Marine Major Joshua Mast and his wife, Stephanie, under a temporary custody order they obtained before the adoption. The Masts will have to re-prove to the court that they should be granted a permanent adoption.
Despite the uncertainty, Thursday’s ruling was a welcome move for the Afghan couple, who had been identified by the Afghan government as the child’s relatives in February 2020 and had raised her for 18 months.
The Masts quickly left the court after the hearing, flanked by their attorneys. The parties are forbidden from commenting by a gag order.
The ongoing dispute raised alarms 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 became determined to rescue the baby and bring her home as an act of Christian faith.
But until now, the adoption order has remained in place.
“There’s never, ever been a case like this,” Judge Claude V Worrell Jr said on Thursday.
The girl, who will turn four this summer, was an infant 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 she had living relatives and united her with them.
Unbeknown to them, Mast learned about the baby while she was hospitalised and decided that he and his wife should be her parents.
The Masts previously told Virginia Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore that she was the daughter of transient “terrorists” who died in the fight and thus a stateless orphan.
Mast claimed that the Afghan government was prepared to waive jurisdiction over her, though it never did. Moore granted him the adoption.
The Masts first contacted the couple in Afghanistan and offered to help with the girl’s medical treatment. After the US military withdrew from Afghanistan, which fell to the Taliban in 2021, the Masts helped the couple evacuate to the US.
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 filings that they legally adopted the child and that the Afghan couple’s accusations that they kidnapped her are “outrageous” and “unmerited”. They have 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 US” and their due process was violated.
Worrell also said from the bench that the Masts knew things that they never told the court, particularly about what was happening in Afghanistan at the same time the judge in Virginia was granting the adoption.
He said he was not sure it was intentional but “the fact of the matter is that the court did not have all the information known to [the Masts] at the time the order was entered”.
The ruling is one more twist in what is already a standout case.
“Once an adoption is final, it is extremely difficult and rare for it to be overturned,” a lawyer in Virginia, Stanton Phillips, said.
“This is really, really unusual,” adoption lawyer Barbara Jones said. “You just don’t hear about this happening.”
A US Defense Department spokesperson told the AP on Thursday the department was aware of the ruling and referred the news agency to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
Another hearing is scheduled for June.