Child Custody Dispute Pits Grandparents’ Rights Against Federal Powers
Encinitas, CA – An unusual child custody case made headlines in March when local police in Southern Florida seized infant girl Ingrid Johnson from her mother’s care in the hospital. What happened was truly an abuse of law enforcement capacity but this case raises a lot of questions regarding grandparent rights in child custody as well as the issue of state/federal jurisdiction vs. tribal law.
The Miccosukee tribe in the Everglades of Florida is its own incorporated nation, thus they have their own court system and law enforcement on their reservation. The baby’s Indian mother, Rebecca Sanders, arrived to the hospital with her mother, Betty Osceola. When the baby was born, her Caucasian father, Justin Johnson came to the hospital with full consent from Ms. Sanders. However, Ms. Sanders’s mother was less than thrilled with him. Two days later, tribal police showed up at the hospital with a court order initiated by the child’s grandmother. They were to seize the baby from the mother’s custody on grounds that her partner (the child’s father) was abusive. The grandmother was reportedly against her daughter’s relationship with the Caucasian man and did not want her grandchild raised by him.
The couple did have an episode of filed domestic abuse in the past, but it was quickly dropped. The restraining order Ms. Sanders once filed against the baby’s father, she maintains, was something she was pressured into by her mom.
The tribal police arrived at the hospital, where the staff complied with yielding the child. Backup police from outside the tribe were called to assist. They were told by Miccosukee police that they were following a federal order. It was, of course, a tribal order and tribal police may only patrol the reservation and property belonging to their tribe.
The baby remained in the custody of the grandmother for some time, while her horrified parents filed complaints, and eventually, a lawsuit. The exact whereabouts of the grandmother were unknown for a few weeks, but within the bounds of the reservation, she had been granted custody of the child according to its court procedures.
Since the tribe is a sovereign nation, state police could do nothing. Only the federal government could challenge the decision made in the Miccosukee court. However, the Indian court system can only resolve matters involving people of full Indian heritage–either those descended from a certain core family in the tribe, or, those with a certain high percentage of Native blood. The parents maintain that their daughter does not have enough Miccosukee blood to be under that jurisdiction. Still, the child remained kidnapped until finally, the State Attorney’s Office prompted an investigation that encouraged the tribe to finally give the baby back to her parents.
The sovereignty of Indian tribes as autonomous nations was meant to protect the ways of life of the Indigenous Native American people. However, as more and more Indian nations members choose to have relationships and children with partners from outside the reservation, a whole new branch of family law challenges opens up. This is far from the only child custody case involving decisions made in a tribal court of law, which is not under any pressure to conform to any of the standards of the United States.
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