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Child custody case may center on tribal membership

Parents or guardians in Colorado and elsewhere who are fearful that their children are at risk of harm will often make rash decisions on how to protect them. A prime example is found in the case of a grandmother who has taken her two grandsons to a Native American reservation in an effort to avoid a child custody ruling that would return the children to their father. The final outcome of the case could take years to resolve and may end up being heard by a federal court.

The grandmother and her husband have been caring for the boys for three years. The mother of the children is the adopted daughter of the grandmother. She has struggled with addiction problems and legal issues for some time, which is why the children have been in the care of the grandmother. There are allegations of abuse at the hands of the biological father, although he has not been charged with any form of child abuse.

In a recent court hearing, the father sought and was granted custody of the two boys. Fearing for their safety, the grandmother transported the children 180 miles to a reservation of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, of which their mother is a member. The grandmother asked the tribal court to grant her emergency custody and was successful.

The case is now far more complicated, due to the fact that federal law requires state courts to adhere to child custody decisions made by tribal courts. That said, the state judge who ruled to return the children to their father insists that his order will stand. Eventually, the matter may come before a federal court before resolution is achieved.

This case serves as a warning for non-parent guardians in Colorado or elsewhere. Having a "handshake" understanding about child custody matters is simply not enough to guarantee a safe and stable home environment for a child. In cases in which there are addiction or abuse issues, a better course of action is to pursue legal custody. Doing so still provides the biological parents a chance to play a meaningful role in the lives of their children, but protects against being impulsively removed from their home and placed in an arguably undesirable living situation.

Source: billingsgazette.com, "Glendive grandmother in custody case hiding out with boys on Northern Cheyenne Reservation", Matthew Brown, Oct. 14, 2015

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