Judge orders baby returned to mother Rebecca Sanders in custody dispute involving state and Native American tribe. A child-custody case in Florida
Judge orders baby returned to mother Rebecca Sanders in custody dispute involving state and Native American tribe.
A child-custody case in Florida has erupted into a battle between state officials and a Native American tribe after a couple complained that their newborn was snatched from a hospital by tribal police based on bogus accusations made by the grandmother, who allegedly does not like the father because he’s white.
Rebecca Sanders, a member of the Miccosukee tribe, and Justin Johnson say tribal police came to Baptist Hospital in Kendall, Florida, and took their baby girl, Ingrid Ronan Johnson, two days after her birth on March 16.
A tribal judge granted custody of the baby and Sanders’ two other children to Sanders’ mother, Betty Osceola.
During an emergency closed-door hearing Thursday afternoon, a tribal judge ordered Osceola to give the infant back to Sanders once the mother has arranged safety measures ordered by the court, Osceola’s lawyer, Spencer West, told ABC News.
West said Osceola will maintain custody of Sanders’ two older children, a 12-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, but that Sanders will have visitation rights.
Sanders’ attorney, Bradford Cohen, told ABC News he believes the tribal court ultimately made the right decision because he says the court order it issued was not legal.
“In my opinion, the way that it was executed, how it was executed, what was in it, and the name that was on it, I don’t believe it was [legal],” Cohen said.
He went on to add that he believed the order was, in a sense, a “pickup order” for the baby. Since there is no valid U.S. penal code allowing that type of order “without going through the courts of that state,” the order was not valid, Cohen stated.
In addition, the name on the order was incorrect, Cohen said. The baby’s name is Ingrid Ronan, but the name was listed as “Ronan Ingrid Johnson” on the order, according to Cohen.
“If I go to a bank, and I present the check with my name spelled wrong, they’re gonna give it back to me,” he said. “This is a baby. No hospital should have handed over a baby with an order that wasn’t certified, by the way — they got a photocopy of the order — and an order where the baby’s name is incorrect.”
The tribal court is a “different court” than what most U.S. citizens are accustomed to, Cohen said. Thursday’s hearing involved two tribal judges, a pew full of elders and a social services worker from the tribe, and “everyone gets a chance to speak.”
Cohen called the tribal court’s decision to return the baby “100 percent correct.”
The ordeal began on Sunday, when Miccosukee tribe police went Baptist Hospital in the Miami suburb of Kendall and took Sanders’ baby from her.
“A police officer and a few security guards came into the room and were talking to me, asking me if I knew what was going on. And I said I didn’t know what was going on. He told me that I no longer have custody of my daughter,” Sanders, 28, said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the tribal police had no right to take Sanders’ baby, arguing they used the tribal court to “kidnap” the newborn from a hospital in the Miami-Dade County jurisdiction.
“They don’t have any jurisdiction outside the reservation,” Rubio wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “I’m in contact with fed officials and this won’t end well for tribe if they don’t return child asap.”
The Miami-Dade Police Department confirmed that the tribal police asked them to send officers to accompany them to the hospital out of concern that Johnson might try to intervene. The Miami-Dade police said they were misled into believing the tribal police were acting on a federal court order to take the baby.
“Upon being made aware of this incident, I have directed the command staff of the involved districts to conduct an immediate inquiry into the matter,” Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said in a statement Thursday. “Once we have additional information, we can determine what, if any, additional steps are necessary. The Miami-Dade Police Department remains committed to the highest performance standards, ethical conduct, and truthfulness in all relationships.”
Baptist Hospital officials said in a statement that two Miami-Dade County police officers arrived at the hospital around 11 a.m. on Sunday with officers from the Miccosukee tribe “to enforce a court order regarding a child’s custody.”
“Baptist Hospital falls under the jurisdiction of the Miami-Dade County Police Department and complies with state and federal laws,” the hospital’s statement said. “It is our hospital’s policy to cooperate with Miami-Dade law enforcement as they enforce court orders. Due to patient privacy laws, we cannot comment on the specific details of any patient care.”
Osceola got the Miccosukee tribal court to grant her custody of the baby and Sanders’ two other children from a previous relationship — 11-year-old Christian Kelly and 12-year-old Anna Mae Kelly — by making false charges of abuse against her and Johnson, the parents said.
The couple said Osceola does not want Johnson, 36, involved in raising the baby because he is white.
“This is a woman who numerous times told Rebecca to her face, ‘I’ll shoot that white man,'” Johnson said at Wednesday’s news conference. “But I didn’t think she was evil enough to do something like this to her own daughter.”
But West, Osceola’s lawyer, told ABC News that Osceola sought custody of Ingrid and Sanders’ two other children from a previous relationship strictly based on concerns for their safety.
“There’s absolutely no merit to accusations that there’s animosity to the father because he is white,” West said prior to Thursday’s custody hearing, adding that he, too, is white. “In this particular case, you have a very volatile history with the father and mother.”
In her request for an emergency order for temporary custody of her three grandchildren filed on March 16, Osceola charged that Johnson abused her two older grandchildren and that Sanders did nothing to stop it.
My granddaughter, Anna Mae Kelly, and grandson, Christian Kelly, told me Justin Johnson hit them sometime in the month of February,” Osceola wrote in an affidavit to the tribal court obtained by ABC News. “Christian told me Justin has been telling him bad things about me and some of my family members, saying we are bad people. Both my grandchildren are afraid of him.”
“When I asked if their mom knew Justin hit them, they both told me, ‘Yes and she saw it happen and didn’t do anything,'” Osceola wrote. “Christian also said his mother punched him on another occasion then called and had Justin speak to him on the phone….”
Both Sanders and Johnson denied the allegations.
The couple said that while they have broken up, they agreed to raise baby Ingrid together.
“The last time I saw my daughter was the last time I got to hold her, and that was Saturday,” Johnson said.