CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — In a highly unusual ruling, a state court judge on Thursday voided a U.S. Marine’s adoption of an Afghan war orphan, more than a year after he took the little girl away from the Afghan couple raising her. But her future remains uncertain.
For now, the child will stay with Marine Maj. 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, the 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 raised her for 18 months. They dropped to their knees in prayer outside the courthouse. As they held each other, the young man wiped the tears from both their eyes with his wife’s headscarf.
The Masts quickly left the courthouse after Thursday’s hearing, flanked by their attorneys. The parties are forbidden from commenting by a gag order.
The dispute raised alarms at the highest levels of government, from the White House to the Taliban, after an Associated Press 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,” said Judge Claude V. Worrell Jr. on Thursday.
The girl, who will turn 4 this summer, was an infant when she was found injured in the rubble after a U.S.-Afghan military raid in a rural part of the country in September 2019. She spent more than five months in a U.S. military hospital before the Afghan government and International Committee of the Red Cross determined she had living relatives, and united her with them.
Unbeknownst to them, Mast learned about the baby while she was hospitalized, and decided that he and his wife should be her parents. The Masts 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. He claimed that the Afghan government was prepared to waive jurisdiction over her, though it never did. Moore granted him the adoption.
The Masts contacted the couple in Afghanistan, offering to help with her medical treatment. After the U.S. military withdrew and Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021, the Masts helped them 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 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 U.S.” 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 wasn’t 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,” said Virginia attorney Stanton Phillips.
“This is really, really unusual,” said adoption attorney Barbara Jones. “You just don’t hear about this happening.”
A Defense Department spokesperson said Thursday it was aware of the ruling and referred the AP to the Justice Department, which declined to comment. Another hearing is scheduled for June.