Thomas More Society Sues Scott County for Usurping Parental Rights

Minnesota Fails by Placing Native American Tribal Law Above Federal

Michelle Steinhoff, Erick Kaardal, Thomas More Society special counsel, and James Nguyen

On October 10, 2017 in Saint Paul, MN two Non-Native American parents of Native American minor children are charging the Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Scott County, Minnesota, with discrimination. The parental rights of James Nguyen and Michelle Steinhoff have been usurped in matters involving each of their minor children because the State of Minnesota is placing Native American tribal law above federal law. Today, attorney Erick Kaardal filed the complaint in United States District Court – District of Minnesota for Nguyen, Steinhoff and Americans for Tribal Court Equality.

Attorney Kaardal, Nguyen and Steinhoff will hold a press conference to address the violations of parental rights and the lawsuit filed by Americans for Tribal Court Equality.

Americans for Tribal Court Equality seeks to inform and advise individuals who have a spouse or intimate partner who is a member of a tribal entity regarding discriminatory practices towards non-members in family, child-custody, and child-protection proceedings. Nguyen and Steinhoff, neither of which is Native American, are members of the organization, and are seeking to overturn decisions regarding their children’s welfare made by a tribal court.

Kaardal, Thomas More Society special counsel, explained, “Mr. Nguyen is married to a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community nation. He and Steinhoff, like other members of the association, have been victimized by Minnesota’s policy of automatically invoking the jurisdiction of a tribe or Indian community. This not only violates the Indian Child Welfare Act, but violates the constitutionally protected rights of the non-tribal parents.” He emphasized the particular importance in light of the clash of cultures, as both parents here have lived exclusively off reservation with their respective children.

The federal Indian Child Welfare Act requires for off-reservation children that a state court proceeding occur and that the consent of both parents be obtained before the transfer of a child custody matter to a tribal tribunal. This statute preserves the parental rights of each parent to make the final decision regarding the jurisdiction that may ultimately determine their child’s future welfare. Minnesota’s practice of transferring child custody proceeding to tribal court without a state court proceeding and without the consent of both parents is a violation of both federal law and parental rights.

“Mr. Nguyen believes that his child’s best interests have been compromised because the mother is Native American,” stated Kaardal, “The tribal court tendency to favor the tribal parent is documented, and Mr. Nguyen has been discriminated against, even though his Native American spouse has a history of drug addiction and has been incarcerated for assault.”

“Meanwhile, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community father of Ms. Steinhoff’s child was charged and convicted with multiple felonies and misdemeanors of the most horrific kind,” shared Kaardal. “He served many years in jail, and unbelievably, Minnesota allowed tribal court to decide the child custody case, usurping Ms. Steinhoff’s parental rights, despite grave risks to the child’s well-being.”

Of particular concern to Nguyen and Steinhoff, and the primary reason they both lived off reservation with their children, is the tribal community environment which they view as unhealthy. Casino revenues provided millions of dollars in per capita payments to the tribe’s adult members, prompting unearned wealth and discouragement of academic pursuits.  This is evidenced by the reservation’s dismal high school graduation rate of about 56%.

Nguyen’s concerns regarding his heroin-addicted spouse are not unique. Native American drug use is a documented problem. Minnesota Commissioner of the Department of Human Services, Emily Piper, is named in the suit as a defendant. Yet, three months after her December 2015 appointment to the post, she voiced her concerns over opioid and other drug addiction in Minnesota’s Native American community to the MinnPost.

This lawsuit is the second one against the Commissioner’s policy of transferring non-reservation child custody proceedings to the tribes without a state court hearing and without obtaining parental consent first—both required by the Indian Child Welfare Act. The earlier lawsuit against Commissioner Piper, still pending in U.S. District Court, was brought by Kimberly Watso regarding her two children and the assertion of tribal court jurisdiction without her consent.  Watso is a member of Americans for Tribal Court Equality.

Nguyen, Steinhoff and Americans for Tribal Court Equality, are seeking relief, damages and mandated changes in Minnesota policy in all aspects as it violates both federal law and parental rights.

Read the Americans for Tribal Court Equality et al v. Emily Piper et al Verified Complaint for Declaratory, Injunctive, and Other Relief – Jury Trial Demanded as filed by Erick Kaardal in United States District Court – District of Minnesota on October 10, 2017, here.