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Legal experts say Miccosukee tribe overstepped authority in seizing baby from Miami hospital

Issued: 2018-03-25

By David Ovalle

dovalle@miamiherald.com

March 23, 2018 06:32 PM

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.

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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.

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