Tribal grandmother accused of taking custody of baby from parents at Baptist Hospital
A smiling baby with a thick head of black hair, Ingrid Ronan Johnson was born to a Miccosukee mother and a white father, inside Baptist Hospital in Kendall.
Two days later, police detectives arrived at the hospital acting on a court order to remove the baby from the new parents.
The order was not signed by a Florida judge, but by a tribal court judge on a reservation 32 miles away in the heart of the Everglades. The cops were from the Miccosukee police force, a department whose jurisdiction covers mainly the reservation and properties owned by the tribe.
The hospital on Sunday allowed the baby to be taken away.
The parents, Rebecca Sanders and Justin Johnson, are now heartbroken and outraged — filing complaints this week with Miami-Dade police, state prosecutors and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. They told the Miami Herald that the tribal court order was a sham, concocted by the baby’s angry maternal grandmother, Betty Osceola, who simply did not want a white father to be a part of the child’s life.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around how this has happened,” Johnson, 36, said tearfully. “I can’t even begin to explain how hard this has been. I don’t see how people of the Miccosukee tribe can look me in the face and tell me this is OK.”
Said Sanders, 28, a tribal member: “I feel like I have no rights. I thought the tribe was to protect its people, not use its own rulings to control its people.”
Exactly what happened at the hospital — and whether Miccosukee police acted lawfully in executing an order from a tribal court on county land — is now under review by state authorities. Miami-Dade detectives also have begun an investigation.
The incident is the latest test of the legal authority of the court and police department with the sovereign Miccosukee tribe, which has clashed with state authorities for years over jurisdiction. Investigators and the child’s parents also have questions for Baptist hospital, which allowed tribal police to remove the baby from her birth mother.
A hospital spokesman, Dori Alvarez, declined to comment on specifics because of federal patient privacy laws. In a statement on Wednesday, she stressed that Miami-Dade police officers also accompanied tribal police to “enforce a court order” that day.
“We obeyed law enforcement. It is our hospital’s policy to cooperate with Miami-Dade law enforcement as they enforce court orders,” the statement said.
Miami-Dade police acknowledged they had officers present but suggested they were misled. A tribal police sergeant, according to a statement, called the Kendall district requesting backup while they executed a “federal court order” at Baptist hospital, claiming the baby’s father might show up and pose a threat. Two uniformed officers were dispatched “solely in the role of keeping the peace,” according to Miami-Dade Capt. Sergio Alvarez.
There was no order from a U.S. federal court judge. The spotlight on the case grew bigger late Wednesday when U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, of Miami, tweeted that the tribe had used its court to “kidnap” the baby. “They don’t have any jurisdiction outside reservation. I’m in contact with fed officials & this won’t end well for tribe if they don’t return child asap,” Rubio tweeted.
The tribe’s legal adviser, Jeanine Bennett, did not respond to an email seeking comment. “Jeanine said the tribe has no comment on pending tribal court matters,” said an employee who answered the phone at the Miccosukee’s legal department.
Calls to the office of Miccosukee chairman Billy Cypress went unanswered. Osceola, who owns the Buffalo Tiger Airboat Tours, did not answer repeated calls to her cellphone. Her lawyer said Wednesday that the tribal court ruling was no different than what state courts do to protect child welfare, removing a child from possible endangerment with the biological parents.
“My understanding is that she is healthy and happy,” attorney Spence West said of baby Ingrid.
The tribal order granted Osceola custody of the baby, but their exact whereabouts are unknown. Her daughter said she lives off the reservation, in Collier County. If the baby is on the Miccosukee reservation itself, the state has no power — only federal authorities have jurisdiction there.
“It’s horrific,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, whose office received a complaint from Johnson on Tuesday. “We don’t really know what the recourse is at this point, but we will continue to review it and talk to other agencies.”
A lawyer representing Sanders said the baby is missing out on crucial bonding time and breast feeding with her natural mother. “We don’t know the health of the baby. We don’t know if she is receiving proper care,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Bradford Cohen.
The Miccosukee tribe has about 600 members and owns a gambling resort at the corner of Krome Avenue and Tamiami Trail. Child custody disputes between Indians and non-Indians are not unusual in states with large Native American populations.
But they are rare in Florida, where the tribal population is less than 10,000. Under the state’s child custody enforcement act, foreign countries are treated the same as other states when it comes to custody battles between parents.
In 2014, the Florida Supreme Court sided with a Miami man who alleged the Miccosukee court had no jurisdiction over a child-custody dispute involving his baby’s mother, who is a tribal member. The local state courts ruled that the tribal court’s procedures — which did not allow the father to testify or even have his lawyer inside court to watch — were legally substandard.
This case is markedly unique. The birth parents are on the same side. And the baby is not yet a tribal member and may never be — Ingrid does not have enough Miccosukee blood to qualify, according to the parents.
According to Sanders and Johnson, this is what happened:
Sanders, a former body builder who grew up on the Miccosukee reservation, met Johnson through fitness circles. He’s a strength coach and therapist who helped her rehab a broken arm.
Most recently, they lived together in Arkansas, but had come down to Miami so she could help care for her ailing stepfather. The friction between the couple and Osceola escalated for months. “Betty has always shown disdain for me,” Johnson said.
The couple has had conflicts, at least one serious enough that law enforcement got involved. Three years ago, Sanders was arrested in Miami-Dade for misdemeanor battery on Johnson, a case that was dropped in less than a month. In November, Sanders acknowledged she asked the tribal court for a restraining order barring Johnson from the reservation, although she said she was pressured to do so by her mother.
He and Sanders decided to split, but remained amicable with plans to co-parent together.
On Friday morning, Osceola drove her daughter to Baptist’s main hospital in Kendall. Sanders left her 11-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter — children from a previous relationship — in the care of her brother, who lives on the Seminole reservation.
Later Friday, about 8:30 a.m., little Ingrid was born through a C-section surgery. In the recovery room, Osceola saw Johnson. That night, Osceola grew agitated with his presence. Sanders insisted she wanted Johnson there — and he would always be a part of the child’s life.
“She threatened to take my kids away. She didn’t want him there. She told told security he needs to be removed,” Sanders recalled.
The hospital allowed Johnson to stay. But on Saturday, the next morning, while the baby was being tended to by doctors, a nursing supervisor entered the room accompanied by security and said “they had received phone calls that it would be in their best interest to have me removed,” Johnson said.
The nurse did not say who was making the calls. Stunned, Johnson refused to leave until he got to see Ingrid.
“I remember kissing her forehead and telling her, ‘Daddy will see you soon,’ ” Johnson said, tearfully. “I haven’t seen my daughter since.”
The distraught Sanders remained in the hospital. On Sunday morning, a doctor came and took the baby for what seemed a normal checkup. But then, in walked two Miccosukee police detectives, accompanied by hospital security and staff.
“The detectives asked me if I knew what was going on. They said, ‘Your baby is being taken. She is no longer in your custody. You are not the mother anymore,’ ” Sanders recalled.
She identified the lead detective as Michael Gay, who state records show has been with the tribal department since 2009. He could not be reached for comment. According to Sanders, he did not have a copy of the Miccosukee court order stripping her of custody of the newborn.
He also said if she went to the reservation, she would need to enter drug rehab. “I asked him for what. I don’t do drugs,” Sanders said.
The detectives left. Within minutes, she said, hospital security and the uniformed Miami-Dade police officers escorted her out of the hospital.
Johnson picked up Sanders and the two immediately went to file a report at the Hammocks district station.
It was not until Monday that the tribal court emailed Sanders a copy of the legal documents. A petition filed by Osceola alleged that Sanders’ autistic son had suddenly revealed that the parents had struck him — something both parents vehemently deny. The order, dated one day after the child was born, strips custody from Sanders but did not say she did anything wrong. The document stressed it is in the “best interest” of all three children that they remain in the custody of Osceola.
Former Miccosukee Police Chief Dave Ward, who is not involved in the case, said tribal court orders are not valid outside the reservation.
“In my opinion, the Miccosukee officers needed to present the tribal order to a state or federal judge in Dade, who would review it and issue an order allowing Miami-Dade police to follow through with removing the baby.”
Ward also said he believed the hospital opened itself up to liability by allowing the child to be removed.
This story has been updated with a new statement from Baptist Hospital and Miami-Dade Police.