Advocacy Journalism - justice for Jawnie Hough

A terrible saga for Jawnie Hough
April 26, 2002

Jawnie Hough update:
Red Lake tribal council tries to rewrite federal law for state court

by Clara NiiSka

On March 4th, 2002, Judge Terrance C. Holter of the 9th District Court of Beltrami County ruled in the case Jawnie Kay Hough vs. Donald James Brun, Jr.  He found in his Conclusions of Law that “parental rights are a fundamental right under the United States Constitution, which requires a reliable due process prior to depriving a citizen of those substantive and important rights.”

Pummeled by a legal nightmare which took root in the jurisdictional interface between state and tribal courts, Jawnie has not seen her daughter, Meghan Brun, for over fifteen months.  The three year old child was ripped from her arms by University of Minnesota police on the evening of January 10, 2001.  Jawnie was at the U of M hospital with a family member undergoing cancer treatment; the police were acting on an ex parte Red Lake tribal court order rubber-stamped into state jurisdiction under “principles of comity.”

Jawnie Hough had been awarded custody of her daughter Meghan as a part of June 1999 divorce granted by the Beltrami County court.  Despite the state court’s having asserted ongoing jurisdiction over Meghan’s custody in that divorce judgment, Donald Brun, Jr., sought reversal of state-ordered custody in the Red Lake tribal court.  The Red Lake tribal court – administered by Donald’s uncle Francis “Chunky” Brun – unilaterally asserted its own jurisdiction after the child’s paternal grandparents removed Meghan to Red Lake reservation in direct violation of the state court order prohibiting the removal of the child to the Red Lake reservation.  The tribal court granted Donald custody in ex parte proceedings.  The tribal court order was dated May 22, 2000.

In his March 4th ruling, Judge Holter found that the Red Lake tribal court had “created a substantial deprivation of parental rights” through those ex parte tribal court proceedings, which disregarded both state court orders and rudiments of due process.  Judge Holter ordered that Meghan “be promptly returned to the proper custody” of Jawnie Hough “before 5:00 p.m., March 10, 2002.”

Communicating through his Bemidji attorney, Michael Ruffenach, Donald informed Jawnie and her attorney that he did not intend to return the child in accordance with the state court’s order.  Jawnie’s attorney responded with a letter urging the Court to “please encourage counsel to assist with the enforcement of the March 4, 2002 Order.”  Ruffenach resigned as Donald’s attorney.

Apparently depending on legal precedents indicating that he would not be subjected to state criminal penalties as long as he remains within the external boundaries of Red Lake reservation, Donald has refused to return the child.

There is another hearing scheduled on May 20th in Beltrami County, in which Donald is requested to “show cause” as to “why the Court should not hold you in contempt” for violating the court’s March 4, 2002 order, as well as for “perpetuating misconduct on the District Court of the County of Beltrami … when you used a tribal court Order under a de facto Ex Parte comity recognition process.”

In state court – unlike the Red Lake tribal court – constitutionally mandated standards of due process require that all parties be properly notified prior to a court hearing.  Donald’s household avoided personal service of the recent court papers by sending a young child to answer the door (state rules require that court papers be handed to an adult).

Jawnie’s attorney then served the legal notices and other court papers to Donald by U.S. mail.

After receiving the papers, Donald gave them to Willa Beaulieu, a Red Lake Comprehensive Health Services employee who told Press/ON that she heads the “Red Lake Nation child protection team.”

According to Beaulieu, “the child is here, and [the Red Lake tribal council] passed a resolution saying that [Meghan] cannot be removed from the reservation.”  Beaulieu said that the tribal council has the authority to flout the State court order because of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).  The Red Lake tribal council passed a resolution putting the children under ICWA, Beaulieu said, “I think in September.”  She added, “they are our children,” and “under ICWA [we] have the authority to make decisions over children.”

Press/ON asked for a copy of the tribal council resolutions.  Beaulieu said that she would fax them.  When the promised fax did not arrive, Press/ON called Beaulieu again.  She then said that she would have to get the permission of her boss – Red Lake Comprehensive Health director and Willa’s slightly younger brother Oran Beaulieu – to release the alleged tribal council resolutions, which are not mentioned in the published tribal council minutes.  Press/ON’s calls to the Red Lake tribal council had not been returned by press time.

Press/ON asked Willa Beaulieu how ICWA, which Congress enacted to address historical problems of “adopting out” numerous Indian children, could be applied to a custody case.  The statute clearly applies to out-of-home placement of children, not custody disputes between parents.  “I’m going to change that,” Beaulieu said, we “have a committee statewide [which] met in the 7 Clans casino about a month ago.”

Both Jawnie Hough and Donald Brun, Jr. are Indians: Jawnie is enrolled at Leech Lake and Donald at Red Lake.  Beaulieu did not clarify how ICWA could be interpreted to establish custodial preference between Indian parents, nor how any U.S. law could support flagrant disregard of the due process protections in the U.S. constitution.  Instead, Beaulieu said that she had talked with the chief judge at the Red Lake tribal court, Wanda Lyons, and “she said that jurisdiction is in Red Lake.”

It is fairly broadly acknowledged that the Red Lake tribal courts are biased toward Red Lake enrollees.  As tribal council chairman Bobby Whitefeather emphatically explained to this writer and Minnesota Lieutenant Governor Mae Schunk last year (in reference to another ex parte Red Lake tribal court case), “we have to stand up for our members.”

Willa Beaulieu stressed to this writer that, “I have to look at the best interests of the child.”  She added that “all of the professional people” on the staff at Red Lake Comprehensive Health Services, “they look at the best interests of the child, they know what is going on.”

The Red Lake child protection team has apparently made no effort to contact the child’s mother, Jawnie.  Beaulieu said that although “I do not know the mother,” she would be willing to “meet with” Jawnie.  “I will take Joyce Roy with me, who is with the U.S. Attorney’s office. … I’m willing to meet with her, arrange for therapy for her,” Beaulieu said.

According to Willa Beaulieu, the Red Lake child protection team handled somewhere between 525 and 575 child protection cases last year.  Press/ON asked the team chair if she intends to attend the May 20th hearing at the Beltrami County Courthouse in Bemidji.  “Absolutely,” Beaulieu said, she will be in court on behalf of Red Lake child protection.  Red Lake attorney Michael Harrington had not returned Press/ON’s calls by press time, so it is not clear whether the tribal attorney will also make an appearance.

Editor’s note: a few minutes before this issue of Press/ON went to the printer, the Red Lake tribal secretary’s office returned our call.  According to tribal Secretary Judy Roy, the Red Lake tribal council has not passed any resolutions affecting the Jawnie Hough case, nor has the tribal council passed resolutions redefining Red Lake’s application of the Indian Child Welfare Act to encompass child custody cases.

Willa Beaulieu thus apparently did not fax the tribal council resolutions to Press/ON because they do not exist.  That the chair of the Red Lake child protection team would misrepresent the Red Lake tribal council’s position on this matter is troubling.

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