Miami-Dade County

Tribal court returns baby police had seized from parents at Miami hospital

Justin Johnson, 36, and his Miccosukee girlfriend, Rebecca Sanders, 28, who gave birth to baby Ingrid Ronan Johnson, Friday, March 16, 2018, only to see the baby whisked away by Miccosukee Police. The couple claims that a Miccosukee tribal court issued a bogus order awarding custody of the child to the child’s grandmother, Betty Osceola, a high-ranking tribal member. Baby Ingrid is now on the reservation, out of reach of state authorities, who have encountered friction with the tribe for years. Baptist Hospital allowed tribal police to take the baby out of the maternity ward.
Justin Johnson, 36, and his Miccosukee girlfriend, Rebecca Sanders, 28, who gave birth to baby Ingrid Ronan Johnson, Friday, March 16, 2018, only to see the baby whisked away by Miccosukee Police. The couple claims that a Miccosukee tribal court issued a bogus order awarding custody of the child to the child’s grandmother, Betty Osceola, a high-ranking tribal member. Baby Ingrid is now on the reservation, out of reach of state authorities, who have encountered friction with the tribe for years. Baptist Hospital allowed tribal police to take the baby out of the maternity ward. emichot@miamiherald.com

Baby Ingrid is back with her parents.

Four days after Miccosukee police detectives seized the newborn at Baptist Hospital — sparking outrage from South Florida to Washington, D.C. — a tribal court agreed Thursday to return the child to her parents.

The removal of the baby drew criticism from officials such as Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who believed the tribe overstepped its authority by seizing the newborn outside the confines of the reservation.

“I’m beyond ecstatic,” the baby’s father, Justin Johnson, told the Herald on Thursday night.

The decision was made after an hours-long hearing at the tribal court on the Miccosukee reservation, deep in the heart of the Everglades. The small Indian tribe, which numbers about 600 members, is considered a sovereign nation and has its own court system and police department.

Ingrid Ronan Johnson was born at Baptist Hospital on March 16, to a Miccosukee mother named Rebecca Sanders, and Johnson, who is white.

But the parents told the Miami Herald that the maternal grandmother, tribe member Betty Osceola, had always disliked Johnson and grew angry that he was at the hospital. She responded by asking a tribal court for an “emergency order granting temporary custody” of Baby Ingrid to herself.

Ingrid Ronan Johnson was born to a Miccosukee mother and a white father at Baptist Hospital in Kendall. Police detectives arrived at the hospital acting on a court order to remove the baby from the new parents.

The court agreed on Saturday, saying “it was in the best interest” of the baby to be placed into the custody of the grandmother. The order did not say Sanders posed a danger to her newborn, instead casting Johnson as a domestic-violence threat who had been ordered to stay away from the reservation.

Hospital staff kicked Johnson off the grounds on Saturday. On Sunday, two Miccosukee police detectives responded to the hospital, with Miami-Dade police for backup to carry out the order. County cops said they were initially told it was a “federal court order” — not a tribal court order. Baptist Hospital acknowledged it received a “court order,” but said it cooperated because the county police were on the scene.

Both Johnson and Sanders insisted that the tribal court had no jurisdiction to seize the baby — who may not have enough Indian blood to qualify as a tribal member.

The stage was set for Thursday’s hearing at the reservation.

Even though the tribal court had ordered the baby removed from the custody of Sanders, the thrust of the hearing was not on her fitness as a mother. Instead, Sanders testified before two tribal judges about her bloodline and history; other elders testified about the importance of Miccosukee heritage.

“I thought both judges were fair to us. They came to the right decision,” said Bradford Cohen, the attorney for Sanders. “Everybody had a chance to speak.”

The tribal court did not put any prohibition on Johnson seeing his daughter, but ruled it maintained jurisdiction over the child. “That makes me uneasy because that means they can pull this stunt again,” Johnson said.

In a press release issued Thursday night, the tribe touted its commitment to stopping domestic violence against Native American women and insisted the removal of the child from its Miccosukee mother was “in the best interest of the minor children and protected them from any future harm.”

“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,” the press release said.

Authorities will examine what happened in the case — and whether the Miccosukee tribe had the authority to take the child from the hospital to begin with. The tribe insists its court order was legal under a federal law that mandates states honor tribal protection orders with “full faith and credit.”

But legal experts say Indian tribes are supposed to first present such orders to a local state judge, who would review the paperwork and endorse the document.

“It is sent over to the state or city jurisdiction with a request to essentially execute the tribal order,” said Mike Andrews, the chief counsel and staff director for the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs, speaking in general. “In order to do that, they need a judge on the state or city side to acquiesce.”

The law also allows the person being served the order to have “reasonable notice and the opportunity to be heard” by a court. In this case, Sanders did not know about the court ruling until Miccosukee police showed up at the hospital room.

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