This West Is OUR West

Tribal court ordered a newborn removed from a Miami hospital. Was that legal?


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. A tribal court returned the baby to the parents on Thursday night. Emily Michot


By David Ovalle

March 25, 2018

The Miccosukee nation insists it acted lawfully when its tribal court issued a child-custody order, then immediately dispatched two tribe detectives to seize newborn Ingrid Johnson from her Indian mother at Baptist Hospital in Kendall.

But Indian law experts interviewed by the Miami Herald, plus two former Miccosukee police chiefs, say they believe the tribe overstepped its authority. And while the tribe is immune from state civil lawsuits, the parents could now file claims against the hospital and even Miami-Dade County police for their roles in the fiasco.

One day after a Miccosukee tribal court backtracked and returned the newborn to mother Rebecca Sanders, her lawyer said he is exploring legal action in a case that spotlights both the small tribe in the Everglades and Baptist Hospital, for allowing the baby to be whisked away based on a tribal-court order.

“The hospital is one of the most egregious actors in this whole thing,” said her lawyer, Bradford Cohen; the hospital declined to comment.

The saga of baby Ingrid was the latest jurisdictional flash point between the state authorities and the sovereign and fiercely independent Miccosukee tribe, which runs a lucrative casino in West Miami-Dade and counts about 600 members. Over the decades, state prosecutors have clashed with the tribe over serving subpoenas on the reservation in a murder case against a Miccouskee member; illegal tribal roadblocks on a state road; and even getting tribal police reports in a fatal crash involving Indians that happened off the reservation.

The taking of the baby sparked criticism from Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who said the tribe had no authority to execute a tribal court order on county land. The parents’ pleas for the return of the baby, first reported by the Miami Herald, also sparked a brief missing-persons investigation by Miami-Dade Police until the baby was returned to her mother Thursday night.

Tribal judges agreed to return custody of Ingrid to Sanders, although they ruled that the child still fell under their jurisdiction — another issue that may lead to legal wrangling down the road.

Baby Ingrid was born at Baptist Hospital on March 16, to Sanders, who is Miccosukee, and Justin Johnson, a white father. The parents said the maternal grandmother, tribe member Betty Osceola, long hated Johnson and grew angry that he was at the hospital for the birth. She responded by obtaining an “emergency order granting temporary custody” of Baby Ingrid to herself.

The order, dated March 17, awarded “physical and legal custody” of the baby “until a hearing is held on this matter,” Tribal Judge Jane Billie wrote. “She shall be entitled to medical records of the child, and to make decision regarding healthcare, education, and religious upbringing during this time.”

Judge Billie also awarded custody of Sanders’ two children from a previous relationship to Osceola and Deedee Kelly, those kids’ paternal grandmother. The order pointed to allegations of domestic abuse by Johnson, who was the subject of a tribal restraining order following domestic strife with Sanders back in November.

“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,” according to a statement released Friday by Osceola’s attorney.

Ingrid Ronan Johnson, was born Friday, March 16, 2018, at Baptist Hospital to Rebecca Sanders, 28 and Justin Johnson, 36. The baby was whisked away by Miccosukee Police under a tribal court order. Tribal judges returned the child to the parents on Thursday.  Emily Michot

The morning after the order was signed, Miccosukee Police called Miami-Dade police to “keep the peace” while the order was carried out. County cops said they were initially told it was a “federal court order” — not a tribal order. Baptist Hospital acknowledged it received a “court order,” but insisted that they cooperated because the county police were there.

“We obeyed law enforcement. It is our hospital’s policy to cooperate with Miami-Dade law enforcement as they enforce court orders,” according to a statement.

So was the tribal court order legal at Baptist Hospital? The Miccosukees believe so.

The order cited a federal law that says states must honor tribal protection orders with “full faith and credit,” a law put into place to protect Indian women from domestic abusers. “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, adding it “took appropriate action in this case.”

Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez told the Miami Herald on Friday that his legal department, after the baby was taken, concluded that the tribe had authority to serve the order. He said he consulted Miami’s U.S. Attorney’s Office, which agreed. A spokeswoman for the federal prosecutors’ office, however, said the office would not comment.


But multiple Indian law experts interviewed by the Herald said the tribal court order has no immediate power outside the reservation — and it should have first been presented to a local judge, in this case, one from Miami-Dade, to basically endorse it.

“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.”

Ted Quasula, a former high-ranking U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs agent, said that in more than 30 years of police service in Indian country, Indian cops always go to state, county or city counterparts to endorse tribal court orders or warrants. “I’ve seen jurisdictional squabbles everywhere,” said Quasula, a member of Arizona’s Hualapi Tribe. “ But as far as one agency going and taking a baby from a hospital 37 miles away, I’ve never seen that.”

Cohen, the attorney for Sanders, pointed out that the Miccosukee reservation is considered a foreign nation. “It would be like if agents from Switzerland came with a pickup order and picked someone up and took them back to Switzerland,” he said.

A Miami-Dade judge might have looked at the tribal order and found it inadequate.

The document got the name of the child wrong, saying her first name was “Ronan”; that’s actually her middle name. The order made no mention of any abuse or neglect by Sanders herself — the very person stripped of her baby. The tribe says “they kidnapped baby to protect from abusive father. But why did they take her from mother too?” Sen. Rubio asked on Twitter Thursday night.

And the federal law cited in the order says the person being served must have a “reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard.” But Sanders, the birth mother, didn’t find out about the court order until Miccosukee detectives walked in to her hospital room to tell her they were taking away Ingrid.

“There was no findings in the order of neglect or abuse,” said William Brady, a Miami lawyer who won a landmark child-custody court decision against the Miccosukee tribe, a case that found tribal court procedures were substandard. “It’s another case where the tribe summary made a decision without looking at the circumstances and giving the parties due process.”

David Ward and Bobby Richardson, both former Miccosukee police chiefs, told the Miami Herald that the tribal cops should have known to go a Miami judge first — but were likely rushed by the tribe.

“Betty was worried that if they didn’t get the child at the hospital, they might not get the child at all. So she and Deedee pushed their very influential tribal weight around,” Ward said. “The tribe rushes things and barks order and the officers were probably afraid of being fired if they didn’t expedite the retrieval of the baby.”