New lawsuit targets custody battles in tribal courts

A lawsuit filed Tuesday targets the Minnesota Department of Human Services and Scott County, organizations the plaintiffs allege are violating federal law by sending child custody cases to Indian tribal court without the consent of both parents. 

Two cases have surfaced recently where one parent is a member of the Mdwonkenen Sioux community and one is not, and in both cases the non-Native American parent claims tribal court is discriminating against them by granting the other parent custody.

These parents held a press conference to outline their grievances Tuesday, saying that Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper has "betrayed the children of Minnesota."

James Nguyen wants sole custody of his son, while Michelle Steinhoff wants the same for her daughter. They both said in a statement Monday that they view the reservation as an "unhealthy" environment for their children to grow up in.

"Casino revenues provided millions of dollars in per capita payments to the tribe’s adult members, prompting unearned wealth and discouragement of academic pursuits," the statement reads. "[Nguyen] emphasized the particular importance of the clash of cultures, as both parents here have lived exclusively off reservation with their respective children."

In both cases, the child's other parent has a history of drug use and incarceration, which they argue should be disqualifying factors in child custody cases.

An earlier, still pending lawsuit also targeted Piper specifically, also claiming the Federal Indian Child Welfare Act requires the consent of both parents and a state court hearing before transferring custody proceedings to tribal court.