Advocacy Journalism - justice for Jawnie Hough

A terrible saga for Jawnie Hough
August 10, 2001
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Native American Press/Ojibwe News

Mother challenges state enforcement of tribal court order which led to seizure of child, kidnapping charges

By Jeff Armstrong

Leech Lake mother of two Jawnie Hough, whose 4-year-old child was seized by state police enforcing a Red Lake court order last March, appeared in Beltrami County Court Tuesday to petition Judge Terrance Holter to rescind his prior decision recognizing the tribal court order.

Representing Hough, Anishinaabe attorney Frank Bibeau said legal misconduct and blatant disregard for the parental rights of his client in the case put reservation courts into disrepute and complicated efforts to negotiate a procedure for mutual recognition of tribal and state court orders.

“This case, the way it’s turned out, is one of the cases they’ll look at to see it never happens again,” said Bibeau. “It’s a form of abduction that’s occurred.”

Divorced in 1999 from an abusive relationship with Donald Brun, Jr., Jawnie Hough lost custody of her daughter Meghan Brun when her former in-laws failed to return the girl from a visit to their Red Lake home in March of last year, instead suing for custody in tribal court. Hough maintains that she was never notified of the May 9, 2000 Red Lake hearing or informed of the outcome. Tribal judge Dan Charnoski awarded custody to Geraldine and Donald Brun, Sr. and the child’s father on May 22, based on testimony that Hough “was aware of the hearing and had also called [Brun] and wished for him to have full custody.”

Bibeau contended that the Bruns waited until April 13 to file the tribal court action because it was just days after Hough’s Order for Protection against Donald Brun had lapsed.

When Hough took back her daughter after spotting Meghan at a Bemidji barbershop last June, the Bruns reported the incident to Bemidji police as a kidnapping. However, Hough still had legal custody under state law, so the Bruns hired attorney Michael Ruffenach to seek a state court ruling adopting the tribal court order under the legal doctrine of comity. Judge Holter granted the application for comity June 16, 2000, but Hough again said she did not receive the court order.

On Jan. 10 of this year, a relative spotted Hough and her daughter at Fairview University Medical Center. After confirming that the child had a pick up and hold order from Beltrami County, University of Minnesota police took the young girl away from her emotionally devastated mother and maternal grandmother. Less than a week later, Hough was charged with felony child abduction.

Hough’s motion to vacate the Beltrami County ruling is the first step in what the mother says is an effort to rescue her daughter from an unsafe environment. The girl suffers from a neurological disorder, and Hough worries about the conduct of her ex-husband.

In a 1999 affidavit submitted with an Order for Protection request, Hough alleged Brun was prone to violent behavior. Over a period of just three months, Hough charged, Brun choked, punched and aimed a gun at her. On April 12, 1999, he was convicted of fifth degree domestic assault. Yet barely one month later, on May 17, Brun was granted a protection order against Hough in Red Lake Tribal Court by Judge Bruce Graves, an order Brun first requested nine days after pleading guilty to assault.

In this week’s court hearing, Ruffenach contended that Hough had abandoned the child in Red Lake and intentionally refused to accept legal notices. The attorney argued that the state court had no authority to reverse its comity decision.

“The Red Lake court took jurisdiction over the child based on its finding that the child had been abandoned to the court,” said Ruffenach. “There is no showing that the Red Lake court does not have jurisdiction.”

Accusing Ruffenach of falling short of ethical and legal standards by submitting internally contradictory statements to the court and failing to provide adequate notice of vital hearings, Bibeau retorted that the notion the judge could not reevaluate his comity ruling in light of the facts was “arrogant.”

Donald Brun, Jr.’s affidavit opposing the effort to vacate the order, presumably drafted by his attorney, states: “When the Petitioner (Hough) left we did not know her whereabouts, she did not state when she would return, and that she had no job. I did not hear from her until after the commencement (sic) the Red Lake Tribal Court proceedings.”

However, the next sentence alleges the complete opposite: “I received a collect call from the Petitioner. Enclosed is a copy of the MCI World Com statement showing that she called collect. At that time, I told her about the Red Lake Tribal Court proceeding.”

“The statements themselves are conflicting,” said Bibeau. “It puts the credibility of the affiant in question.”


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