Father in tribal custody battle says losing baby was ‘close to hell’
For Justin Johnson, having his newborn baby girl taken from him was "as close to hell as I would want to get to."
Johnson spoke to ABC News' Victor Oquendo about his days-long nightmare after he says tribal police came to Baptist Hospital in Kendall, Florida, and took his daughter, Ingrid Ronan Johnson, days after her birth on March 16.
Johnson said he was devastated when Ingrid was taken from him. His biggest concerns? "Not knowing where she was exactly, not knowing how she was, if she was being taken care of properly … she was literally taken away right after Rebecca got done feeding her," he said. "Not knowing if she's getting everything that she needs was just nerve-wracking."
A tribal judge ordered that Ingrid be returned to both Johnson and her mother, Rebecca Sanders, a member of the Miccosukee tribe, on Thursday. She was due to arrive shortly when ABC News spoke to Johnson.
"Hold her," Johnson replied when asked what he was going to do when he saw his daughter. "The only thing I can think of is holding her."
The ordeal began when a tribal judge granted custody of the baby and Sanders' two other children to Sanders' mother, Betty Osceola.
Miami-Dade police said a Miccosukee police sergeant asked them for backup to enforce a federal court order to take the baby. Two Miami-Dade officers went with Miccosukee police to the hospital to “maintain the peace” when the child was taken on Sunday. It has since been determined that there was no federal order, just an order from the tribe.
During an emergency closed-door hearing Thursday afternoon, a tribal judge ordered Osceola to give the infant back to Sanders once the mother has arranged safety measures ordered by the court, Osceola's lawyer, Spencer West, told ABC News.
West said Osceola will maintain custody of Sanders' two older children, a 12-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl, but Sanders will have visitation rights.
Sanders’ attorney, Bradford Cohen, told ABC News he believes the tribal court ultimately made the right decision because he says the court order it issued was not legal.
“In my opinion, the way that it was executed, how it was executed, what was in it, and the name that was on it, I don’t believe it was [legal],” Cohen said.
Osceola got the Miccosukee tribal court to grant her custody of the baby and Sanders' two other children from a previous relationship — 11-year-old Christian Kelly and 12-year-old Anna Mae Kelly — by making false charges of abuse against her and Johnson, the parents said.
Both Sanders and Johnson have previously denied the allegations and said Osceola does not want Johnson, 36, involved in raising the baby because he is white.
"[There's no truth to that] whatsoever," Johnson told ABC News Thursday, "and to know that she went that far because there were other ways that she tried to remove me from Rebecca's life before, to know that she'd stoop this low, is just … as a parent I don't even know how someone could do that."
Asked if he believes Osceola had a problem with him because he's not a member of the tribe, Johnson said "very much so" and added that Osceola never referred to him by name, "just the white man."
Johnson said he still can't believe that Osceola would level such serious accusations against him.
"She said that I abused the kids, that I had beaten the kids," he said. "It's completely absurd, to know that that's the lengths, out of all the ways of trying to get me out of Rebecca's life and not wanting me to be around my daughter didn't work that she had to stoop that low."
Police are investigating what led to the child being taken from the hospital in the first place on a tribal court order.
"Upon being made aware of this incident, I have directed the command staff of the involved districts to conduct an immediate inquiry into the matter," Juan Perez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, said in a statement Thursday. "Once we have additional information, we can determine what, if any, additional steps are necessary. The Miami-Dade Police Department remains committed to the highest performance standards, ethical conduct, and truthfulness in all relationships.”
In a statement, the hospital said: "Baptist Hospital falls under the jurisdiction of the Miami-Dade County Police Department and complies with state and federal laws. It is our hospital's policy to cooperate with Miami-Dade law enforcement as they enforce court orders. Due to patient privacy laws, we cannot comment on the specific details of any patient care."