Clash between state and tribal courts in child custody case

North Carolina residents might like to learn about a story involving two contradicting rulings in a child custody case that started when the grandmother of a 5-year-old boy and an 8-year-old boy filed for custody in a tribal court, as the boys are members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. The tribal court granted her physical custody and immediate emergency guardianship as the woman and social workers cited abuse by the boy’s father.

The boys lived in Glendive in Montana with their grandparents for three years, but the grandmother took the boys to the Cheyenne tribe’s land when fearing that the father would be granted custody by a state court judge. The grandmother is not under obligation to follow state court jurisdiction on tribal land, but there is now a $25,000 warrant for her arrest after an emergency order was filed on Oct. 5 by the boy’s father after a Montana judge gave him custody.

The grandmother’s attorney plans to challenge the U.S. court’s jurisdiction as her client has a valid order from tribal court. To gain custody of the children, the attorney said the father would need to go to tribal court and appeal its initial ruling.

No abuse charges were ever officially filed, but the grandmother and others have picketed Montana’s Division of Child and Family Services as people are saying that abuse reports are not investigated and that recommendations from licensed counselors are ignored. Since parents who aren’t considered unfit have rights regarding their children, this means abusive parents could be given custody if reports of abuse are not pursued.

Issues regarding jurisdiction can make child custody matters more difficult, but courts generally decide custody based on the best interests of the child or children involved. If a custodial parent is estranged from a child’s other relatives, these relatives may have rights and could ask a judge for visitation.