Miami-Dade faces lawsuit over ‘kidnapping’ of Miccosukee baby from Baptist hospital

Miami-Dade County is facing a lawsuit for its role in the saga of Ingrid Johnson, the newborn baby seized by Miccosukee tribal police at Baptist Hospital in Kendall.

It was nearly one year ago that tribal police, accompanied by Miami-Dade Police Kendall District officers, took the baby from her Miccosukee mother — against the woman’s will — at the hospital more than 30 miles from the reservation.

The tribe returned the child days after the Miami Herald first reported on the case, sparking sharp criticism from 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.

Lawyers for Ingrid’s father last year filed a lawsuit against members of the Indian police department, prominent tribal members and Baptist Hospital, which allowed Miccosukee cops to take the baby. The broadened lawsuit now includes the county, a legal advisor for the tribe, Jorge Nuñez, and the woman’s gynecologist, Dr. Jason James, who is accused of helping facilitate the seizure of the baby.

Miami-Dade County had not seen the lawsuit yet; county officials usually do not comment on pending litigation. Reached by phone on Tuesday, Miccossuke general counsel Jeanine Bennett, who is also being sued, said only: “We have no comment for you.”

The newly updated lawsuit, which must still be accepted by the judge, claims Baptist helped the tribe “kidnap” the baby because the Miccosukees have long made the hospital its venue of choice for tribal members.

“Simply put, the suit alleges that Baptist traded Baby Ingrid to protect a profitable business relationship with the tribe,” said lawyer Maximilan Steiner, who represents Johnson and Sanders.

The hospital, meanwhile, is asking a Miami-Dade judge to throw out the lawsuit, pointing out that county officers deferred to police officers who claimed they had a valid “protection order” from the tribal court.

“The healthcare provider defendants had no independent duty to determine the underlying validity of the emergency protection order,” lawyer Scott Mendlestein wrote in his motion

Dori Alvarez, a hospital spokeswoman, said Baptist expects to the motion to dismiss “will resolve this case favorably for the hospital and its employees.”

“We see no legal merit to this case,” Alvarez said of the lawsuit against the hospital.

LRG_DSC02845.JPG

David Ovalle Miami Herald

The tribe, which numbers about 600 members, is considered a sovereign nation and has its own court system and police department, which generally do not have jurisdiction off the federally designated reservation deep in the Everglades or its West Miami-Dade hotel and casino. Over the years, the tribe has squabbled with state authorities repeatedly over jurisdictional issues.

Miccosukee leaders said their court had the legal authority to take the baby from her mother under a federal law that says states must honor tribal protection orders with “full faith and credit,” a law put into place to protect Native American 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 at the time, adding it “took appropriate action in this case.”

Indian-law experts, however, have said the tribal order should have first been reviewed and endorsed by a Miami-Dade state-court judge.

Baby Ingrid was born at Baptist on March 16, 2018 to Rebecca Sanders, who is Miccosukee, and Justin Johnson, who is white.

Miccosukee Baby lawsuit

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. Johnson filed a lawsuit this week against the hospital and tribal members.

Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

The child’s maternal grandmother, Betty Osceola, who did not get along with Johnson, asked a tribal court for an “emergency order granting temporary custody” of Baby Ingrid to herself and the mother of Sanders’ former tribe-member husband.

The tribal court agreed. The order did not say Sanders posed a danger to her newborn, instead describing Johnson as a domestic-violence threat who had been ordered to stay away from the reservation. He has long denied those claims.

Hospital staff kicked Johnson out of the hospital. Two days after Ingrid was born, two Miccosukee police detectives arrived at the hospital, with Miami-Dade police along for backup to carry out the “pick-up” order.

Miami-Dade Police told the Miami Herald said their officers 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 they say does not have enough Miccosukee blood to qualify as a tribal member.

The removal of the baby sparked frantic action by the State Attorney’s Office and Miami-Dade police as they sought to figure out whether the tribal order was valid. Police began a missing-persons investigation, which closed when the Miccosukee court allowed the child to return to her mother.

The unusual clash between Florida and U.S. authorities and the tribe had a ripple effect.

Four months later, South Florida law enforcement underwent a first-of-its-kind training on Native American law. The session was hosted by the director and legal counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Mike Andrews. The committee oversees funding for tribal police departments nationwide.