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FL: Child custody case tests tribal, non-tribal rights

July 16, 2013

In the battle for partial custody of his two young children, Kevin Stier traveled to a courthouse in a foreign land.

It was not overseas, but to the Miccosukee Indian reservation, 40 miles west of his West Miami-Dade home. And when the Miccosukee judges awarded temporary sole custody to the children’s tribal-member mother, Stier turned to a Miami-Dade court for help.

The result promises to be a legal showdown, unique for South Florida, to determine where the children actually lived — and ultimately, whether Florida or the sovereign Miccosukee nation should preside over the case for permanent custody.

A Miami-Dade judge has set a Sept. 6 hearing to determine which court has jurisdiction, a case Stier could win if his lawyers can prove the children lived outside of the Indian reservation in the six months before the legal clash began.

“I can’t get my rights, as a father, in Miccosukee court,” said Stier, a 28-year-old non-Indian, who says mother Layla Billie has never really lived on the reservation with the children. “I just want a fair shot.”

But Billie insists she has always been the “sole provider” for children Billie Stier, 6, and Elsa Stier, 5, on Miccosukee land.

“They live with me, have been living with me,” Billie wrote in a petition asking the tribal court for permanent custody. “I can’t have someone just come and try to take them from me after being absent from their lives this whole time. I am their mother, they belong with me.”

In the legal world, the rights of Indian children recently has taken center stage.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a hotly contested 5-4 decision, said a South Carolina court was wrong in allowing a Cherokee father to reclaim his adopted daughter after he had waived his parental rights.

The legal fight centered on the 1978 federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which was enacted to protect abusive adoption practices that for years had unjustly separated Native-American families.

In Florida, that federal law occasionally has been the focus of custody disputes.

In July 2005, the Mdewakanton Dakota Community Tribal Court in Minnesota stripped Indian parents Chester and Vickie Johnson of their rights to parent their children because of repeated neglect and substance abuse.

The Johnsons, who had moved with the children to Central Florida, went to Brevard County Court — and later an Orlando federal court — to regain custody. Judges in both courts declined, citing the Indian Child Welfare Act in declaring that only tribal court had jurisdiction over the tribal children, no matter where they lived.

But in the case of the Stier children, the legal skirmish is completely different.

The thrust of the case: the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which establishes jurisdiction over custody battles between states and foreign countries.

Custody battles between one Indian parent and another non-Indian are not unusual, especially in states with large Native-American populations, said Oklahoma attorney Gregory Meier, who practices in Muscogee and Cherokee tribal courts.

“It’s not uncommon at all … for there to be a race to the courthouse, with one parent going to a tribal court, and another parent going to the state courthouse,” said Meier, whose home state boasts more than 343,000 Native Americans.

But Florida has fewer than 10,000 Native Americans, according to the latest census figures. Miami-Dade’s principal tribe, the Miccosukees, has about 600 members.

That means the custody dispute between Stier and Billie may be a first, at least in South Florida, according to lawyers in the case.

Under the child custody enforcement act, foreign countries — and under federal law, the Miccosukee reservation off Tamiami trail is a sovereign nation — are treated the same as other states when it comes to custody battles between parents.

The key provision of the law: the court with jurisdiction is the one from where the children resided “within 6 months” of the “commencement of the proceedings” for child custody.

In court documents, Stier’s lawyers says Billie lived in Pembroke Pines, and moved back to the reservation only after the legal wrangling began. Billie says she has always lived on the reservation — and the children have only attended tribal school.

“This is important because Kevin wants to have a time-sharing schedule with his children,” said Miami lawyer William Brady, who is representing Stier with attorney Jay Levy. “There is a very close relationship between him and his children, and with his parents.”

The custody case is the latest in a string of high-profile headlines involving the Miccosukee Tribe in recent months.

Last month, a Miami-Dade judge ordered the tribe to pay a $3.2 million judgment levied against a Miccosukee woman who killed a mother in a head-on car collision.

The tribe is also suing its former chairman, accusing him of embezzling $26 million from the Miccosukees. The tribe is also suing its ex-lawyers, alleging malpractice and racketeering.

The tribe is also embroiled in a legal fight with the county over federal efforts to designate its West Kendall golf course part of the tribe’s federally protected reserve.

Stier and Billie met in 2003, when Stier worked as a valet at the Miccosukee Resort and Gaming. Billie would drop off her two children from another relationship at the resort’s daycare.

The couple never married, had the two children and later moved to Naples. The relationship soon fell apart.

The two maintained a cordial relationship for years, with an informal child-sharing agreement, according to Stier’s lawyers.

The children resided mainly with Billie, but stayed with Stier every other weekend or so, or whenever the mother needed to drop them off, according to his lawyers.

But after Billie got into a romantic relationship with a woman recently, tensions mounted with Stier. The tipping point came in September, she claims, when Stier was supposed to pick the children up from school, but couldn’t make it and sent his mother instead.

Stier’s lawyers say this was completely normal. Billie, in her petition to the tribal court, claimed she never gave authorization to the children’s grandmother to pick them up.

“They talk down to me,” Billie wrote of the Stier family. “I don’t deserve to be talked to that way. I’m sole support of my kids. I pay for everything. Basketball leagues. Birthday parties for both my kids.”

Afterward, Billie filed a petition for temporary custody with the tribal court on Oct. 1. That same day, the court immediately granted the petition and set a hearing for the next month.

In the meantime, on Nov. 1, Stier’s lawyers filed a petition in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Five days later, Stier, his father and lawyer drove to the Miccosukee Tribal Court, more than 20 miles west of Krome Avenue.

The Miccosukee judges hear matters of all types, including criminal cases in which Indians are arrested by tribal police — a system that has often come under criticism.

Attorney Brady was not allowed in the court. He was told it was because he didn’t speak the Miccosukee language.

The hearing was entirely in the Miccosukee language, with only a brief translation at the end. The court granted her custody.

But Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mindy Glazer later ruled that Stier deserved a chance to try and prove that the children resided in Florida, and not the reservation.

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