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Appeals court finds parental kidnapping law does not apply to tribal nations

Tribal courts can hear custody cases involving their citizens — even if there are existing orders in place from another court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled.
Wide open grasslands of central South Dakota dominate the landscape of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation on August 4, 2019 in rural South Dakota.
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Court in South Dakota had jurisdiction over a child custody case involving a tribal member despite a prior order in North Dakota, an appeals court ruled this week.Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images file

A federal law preventing parents from taking custody battles across state lines did not apply to tribal nations, a federal appeals court ruled this week. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit on Tuesday ruled in a longstanding custody dispute involving a mother, who is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux. After taking her two children to the South Dakota reservation in 2014 in defiance of a joint custody order in North Dakota, she was convicted of kidnapping under a federal law — the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act of 1980. 

That law was intended to stop parents from bringing new child custody cases across state lines. But the appeals court ruled it did not apply to tribal nations because the statute did not specifically mention them.

The decision was binding in 8th Circuit courts — which include North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Arkansas — a legal expert said.

Kate Fort, the director of clinics at Michigan State University College of Law, said the decision supported the authority of tribal courts in those states to hear custody cases involving their citizens — even if there were existing orders in place from another court. Both state and tribal courts want to reach justice quickly and not duplicate their efforts, she said. 

“It’s not often that a tribal court is going to want to come in and stomp on” other courts’ and states’  jurisdiction, she said. 

In this case, the tribal court decided it was necessary to claim jurisdiction over the case, but the laws of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the states of North Dakota and South Dakota factored into how it ended up in federal appellate court, she said. 

Courts in other parts of the country could respond much differently, Fort said. “I don’t think the sky is falling regarding custodial interference.” 

The decision was a win for tribal sovereignty, legal experts said, and it highlighted that only Congress had the authority to address the jurisdiction of tribal courts. 

“This is an important victory for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and our Lakota Oyate,” Tribal Chairman Ryman LeBeau said in a statement. “Our children are most sacred. It is the Tribe’s responsibility to protect them. Today, the Eighth Circuit reaffirmed our inherent sovereign authority to do so.”

The case dates back to 2014, when Tricia Taylor took her two children — ages 1 and 6 — to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation and sought an emergency protective order in tribal court against the youngest child’s father, accusing him of physically abusing her, according to court documents. 

The girl’s father, Aarin Nygaard, denied all accusations of abuse in court records. He could not be reached for comment, and his attorney did not return phone calls.

After taking the children, Taylor was arrested and convicted of parental kidnapping in 2015 and served more than two years in prison. In the meantime, her brother filed for a new custody order in the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Court, which allowed the children to stay with Taylor’s family members on the reservation. 

Nygaard filed appeals in tribal and federal courts, and the case wound its way through the legal system for nine years before making its way to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the tribal court’s authority to award custody to Taylor’s family.