In the battle for partial custody of his two young children, Kevin Stier traveled to a courthouse in a foreign land.
It was not overseas, but to the Miccosukee Indian reservation, 40 miles west of his West Miami-Dade home. And when the Miccosukee judges awarded temporary sole custody to the children’s tribal-member mother, Stier turned to a Miami-Dade court for help.
The result promises to be a legal showdown, unique for South Florida, to determine where the children actually lived — and ultimately, whether Florida or the sovereign Miccosukee nation should preside over the case for permanent custody.
A Miami-Dade judge has set a Sept. 6 hearing to determine which court has jurisdiction, a case Stier could win if his lawyers can prove the children lived outside of the Indian reservation in the six months before the legal clash began.
“I can’t get my rights, as a father, in Miccosukee court,” said Stier, a 28-year-old non-Indian, who says mother Layla Billie has never really lived on the reservation with the children. “I just want a fair shot.”
But Billie insists she has always been the “sole provider” for children Billie Stier, 6, and Elsa Stier, 5, on Miccosukee land.
“They live with me, have been living with me,” Billie wrote in a petition asking the tribal court for permanent custody. “I can’t have someone just come and try to take them from me after being absent from their lives this whole time. I am their mother, they belong with me.”
In the legal world, the rights of Indian children recently has taken center stage.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a hotly contested 5-4 decision, said a South Carolina court was wrong in allowing a Cherokee father to reclaim his adopted daughter after he had waived his parental rights.
The legal fight centered on the 1978 federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which was enacted to protect abusive adoption practices that for years had unjustly separated Native-American families.
In Florida, that federal law occasionally has been the focus of custody disputes.
In July 2005, the Mdewakanton Dakota Community Tribal Court in Minnesota stripped Indian parents Chester and Vickie Johnson of their rights to parent their children because of repeated neglect and substance abuse.
The Johnsons, who had moved with the children to Central Florida, went to Brevard County Court — and later an Orlando federal court — to regain custody. Judges in both courts declined, citing the Indian Child Welfare Act in declaring that only tribal court had jurisdiction over the tribal children, no matter where they lived.
But in the case of the Stier children, the legal skirmish is completely different.
The thrust of the case: the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which establishes jurisdiction over custody battles between states and foreign countries.
Custody battles between one Indian parent and another non-Indian are not unusual, especially in states with large Native-American populations, said Oklahoma attorney Gregory Meier, who practices in Muscogee and Cherokee tribal courts.
“It’s not uncommon at all … for there to be a race to the courthouse, with one parent going to a tribal court, and another parent going to the state courthouse,” said Meier, whose home state boasts more than 343,000 Native Americans.