Miccosukee Indian Village in Florida. Photo: Paul Everett

Miccosukee Tribe ties child welfare case to violence against women

The Miccosukee Tribe is defending its handling of a child welfare case that has drawn national attention.

The tribe said a newborn was taken from her mother, a Miccosukee citizen, in order to protect the baby girl and her older siblings from domestic violence. The mother had previously been victimized by her non-Indian former partner, whose presence at the hospital during the birth earlier this month led the maternal grandmother to seek custody of the baby.

“The Violence Against Women Act confirmed the right to a sovereign national to protect its people, especially its children,” the tribe said in a press release quoted by The Miami Herald.

Betty Osceola, the grandmother, secured the custody order in tribal court on March 16, the day the girl was born, according to documents posted by Local10. In her petition, she said her two older grandchildren were "afraid" of the non-Indian former partner.

“The intent of the minor children’s grandmother was protect the children from the abuse by the infant’s father, and to get help for their mother who is a victim of domestic violence,” a subsequent statement released by Osceola's attorney read, The Herald reported.

Justin Johnson, the non-Indian former partner, was arrested three years ago for assaulting Rebecca Sanders, the mother of the baby, The Herald reported. It's not clear whether he was ever charged.

But there are indications of more recent strife, according to the tribal court documents, which is why Osceola was alarmed by Johnson's presence at the hospital and why the baby was eventually taken from Sanders on March 18.

In an emergency order, Judge Jane Billie found "reasonable cause" to believe that Johnson committed an "incident of violence" against Sanders while she was pregnant with the baby. The incident apparently occurred last November, resulting in the older two grandchildren being placed in the custody of Osceola and their other grandmother.

Despite the allegations of abuse, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), a former Republican candidate for president, and other observers accused the tribe of wrongdoing. "#Miccosukee say they kidnapped baby to protect from abusive father. But why did they take her from mother too?" the lawmaker wrote in a post on Twitter on March 22.

"Tribal court has no power outside reservation without state or fed court approval. They lied to police & hospital claiming to have such approval," Rubio continued in what was his third post on the subject.

The tribe's court held a follow-up hearing on March 22 and ordered the newborn to be returned to Johnson, who participated in the proceeding, according to news reports. The status of the older children hasn't been disclosed.

“The Miccosukee Tribe will continue to work with Ms. Sanders and her family to help them reunify and will continue to protect their native children and families,” a statement quoted by The Herald read.

Numerous studies, including those conducted by the federal government, show that Native women are victimized at rates far higher than any other group in the United States. The majority of their abusers are non-Indian, according to the research cited by the Tribal Law and Policy Institute.

But tribes have lacked authority over non-Indians as the result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe. The situation led Congress to recognize tribal jurisdiction with the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 2013.

The law also requires tribal court protection orders to be recognized by states and other territories, so long as certain conditions, including due process for parties involved, are met. Some observers have questioned whether those conditions have been met in the Miccosukee case.

According to the tribal court documents posted by Local10, Johnson was provided an opportunity to be heard after the allegations of abuse last year. He apparently chose not to participate -- the order notes that he "admitted, by virtue of his inexcusable default after proper notice," to the incident against Sanders while she was pregnant.

Though most news accounts have described the pair as a "couple," Johnson and Sanders are no longer together, The Associated Press reported. They intend to co-parent the newborn, the AP said.

Read More on the Story:
Tribal court returns baby police had seized from parents at Miami hospital (The Miami Herald March 22, 2018)
Tribal court ordered a newborn removed from a Miami hospital. Was that legal? (The Miami Herald March 23, 2018)
Tribal court orders return of baby to her parents (The Associated Press March 25, 2018)

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