Advocacy Journalism - justice for Jawnie Hough

A terrible saga for Jawnie Hough
October 12, 2001
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     Native American Press/Ojibwe News

Beltrami County judge upholds decision enforcing tribal court custody ruling against mother

by Jeff Armstrong

Apparently basing his ruling on contradictory statements by Donald Brun, Jr., father of four-year-old Meghan Brun, Beltrami County district judge Terrance Holter refused to rescind his previous decision to enforce an ex parte Red Lake Tribal Court order revoking state court custody from the mother, Jawnie Hough.

Hough, who says she has been denied all contact with her daughter since Meghan was taken from her last January, termed the decision "heartbreaking."

In an Oct. 3 ruling, Holter concluded that Hough "took the parties' child ... to the reservation and freely and willingly left it there for quite some time in the custody of the Respondent's grandparents. In short, she submitted herself to another jurisdiction, as any person does when he/she crosses state boundaries."

Contrary to the court's assumptions, however, Hough says she did not bring the child to Red Lake but rather met the grandparents in Bemidji. She said the visit was intended to be for two days, as Hough had to work a weekend double shift.

Hough further maintains that she was notified of neither the May 8, 2000 tribal court process nor the June 19, 2000 state court "comity" proceedings. The Leech Lake mother of two says Brun's parents, Donald, Sr. and Geraldine Brun, refused to return Meghan from a routine visit to their Red Lake home in March of last year.

When Hough reclaimed the child during a chance encounter in Bemidji--a jurisdiction to which the grandparents had willingly submitted themselves--the mother had undisputed legal custody under state law. However, the child was subsequently seized and Hough charged with felony kidnapping after the Bruns obtained state enforcement of the tribal order.

Saying he was "flabbergasted" by the reasoning of the court, Hough's attorney Frank Bibeau said he would file a motion within days requesting the judge amend his ruling before submitting the case to the state appeals court.

"Brun's inconsistencies in sworn affidavits would constitute perjury in most courts," said Bibeau.

On April 13, Brun, Jr. filed suit in tribal court seeking sole custody of the child, claiming the mother had abandoned Meghan to her paternal grandparents, whom Hough had allegedly failed to contact. Brun claimed that Hough was aware of the tribal court hearing but wished to relinquish Meghan's custody to him. The Red Lake court on May 22 awarded legal custody to Brun, with physical custody to remain in the hands of Brun's parents.

The only alleged notice of the original state court hearing presented at a July 31, 2001 review of the June 19, 2000 comity order was a letter faxed the day of the hearing to two legal aid organization which were not currently representing Hough, who quite reasonably suggests that she would have obtained a lawyer had she known of the need to do so.

Yet Holter identified no due process violation in a same-day notice to the incorrect location of a person without legal representation.

"Of all the reasons offered by the Petitioner, the only one having any credibility concerns insufficiency of notice," the district judge wrote. "On the evidence before it, the Court has no basis to conclude that the Petitioner did not have notice of the pendency of either the Red Lake custody Motion or the later Motion before this court to have the Red Lake custody Order recognized."

In his most recent affidavit to the court, Brun claims, "I did not hear from [Hough] until after the commencement the [sic] Red Lake Tribal Court proceedings," but goes on to state that Hough called him collect prior to the May 9, 2000 court date, at which time "I told her about the ... proceeding."

Remarkably, Holter suggests that justice cannot wait for notice to both parties of a civil dispute.

"Decisions by this court are not held in abeyance simply by virtue of the fact that a party cannot be found," wrote Holter. In fact, the judge says his ruling is "predicated on the facts surrounding Petitioner's non-inquiry concerning potential court action affecting her."

In other words, Bibeau says, Hough was responsible for regularly contacting state and tribal courts to ascertain if anyone had filed suit against her. The Anishinaabe attorney said there was no evidence to support Holter's opinion that Hough merely "disliked the tribal court and refused to present her side of the story."

"I don't know how you can disregard or dislike something if you haven't seen it," said Bibeau.

Hough contends that the Bruns essentially abducted the child and fraudulently used state and tribal legal process to deprive her of her inherent rights as a mother without her knowledge. Hough maintains that she was unaware of any court orders she may have violated until she was herself charged with kidnapping.

"They're the ones that took her away from me," said Hough. "I didn't even get to testify in court."

The 25-year-old Anishinaabe woman said she took offense at Holter's statement that both parties "have and/or have had serious problems with alcohol and anger."

"I've got nothing on my record except a speeding ticket," retorted Hough. "I don't know how they can give someone who's got a track record like him a child."

Brun petitioned Red Lake for a protection order against Hough barely one month after pleading guilty to fifth-degree assault against the Anishinaabe woman in 1999.

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