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Miami hospital allowed tribal police to kidnap newborn baby parents say

Issued: 2018-03-21

By David Ovalle

dovalle@miamiherald.com

March 21, 2018 07:00 AM

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 to the hospital with 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.

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The parents, Rebecca Sanders and Justin Johnson, are now heartbroken and outraged — filing complaints with Miami-Dade police, state prosecutors and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. On Tuesday, they told the Miami Herald the tribal court order was a sham, concocted by the baby’s vengeful 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.”

By Tuesday evening, after inquiries from the Herald, Miami-Dade Director Juan J. Perez said his department had initiated an “immediate inquiry” into what happened. “Once we have additional information, we can determine what, if any, additional steps are necessary,” he said.

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 declined comment because of federal patient privacy laws. “Baptist Hospital falls under the jurisdiction of the Miami-Dade County Police Department and complies with state and federal laws,” spokeswoman Dori Alvarez said.

The tribe’s legal adviser, Jeanine Bennett, did not respond to an e-mail 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.

The tribal order granted Osceola custody of the baby, but their 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.

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