The Miami-Dade area will be host to a landmark custody battle that will decide the fate of not only the litigants involved but of Native American-Florida relations.
A West Miami-Dade resident will be fighting for the custody of his two children in a Miami-Dade court, after having been repeatedly denied parental rights in Native American Tribal Court. The mother of his children and he never married. She is a member of the Miccosukee tribe. After their relationship dissolved the two shared custody and visitation of the children in an informal and unofficial weekend-by-weekend manner.
In October, relations went sour between the two and the woman filed for a petition for temporary custody in Miccosukee tribal court in which the petition was immediately granted and a court date was set. The man reacted by having his attorney file a petition in Miami-Dade and the two of them attended the Miccosukee tribal hearing. The man’s attorney was not allowed in the courtroom based on his “failure to speak the Miccosukee language”. The hearing was conducted wholly in the tribal tongue with only a brief translation. The woman was awarded full custody.
In this case, the central focus will not be the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which so often comes into play during adoption and custody battles regarding Native American children, but rather the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act which provides the courts jurisdiction in deciding custody disputes involving citizens of different states or countries. The act follows federal law and accordingly Indian reservations, the Miccosukee included, are treated as sovereign states.
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. The man is contending that the woman does not and has not lived on the reservation; the woman is obviously claiming she has resided on the reservation and that she has been the sole financial provider for the children.
The state of Florida officially recognized the now well known reservation known as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida in 1957. The reservation was recognized by the federal government in 1962.
These types of custody battles are not uncommon in states with large Indian populations. In South Florida, however, this case is likely a first, according to the attorneys. The latest census puts the number of Native Americans in Florida at less than 10,000. The Miccosukees are the Miami-Dade area’s biggest local tribe with a population of 600.