By Steve Kemme
The Cincinnati Enquirer
HAMILTON - A Cherokee tribal court has already decided the custody of three young children, according to their mother who claims they are "political prisoners'' of Butler County courts.
The children - two boys ages 7 and 6 and their 5-year-old sister - are the children of Amy Osborne,of Hamilton, and Lloyd Arneach Jr., an American Indian who lives on a reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina.
On Friday, Butler County Juvenile Court Judge David Niehaus awarded temporary custody to Arneach after the children's mother was charged with endangering because of unsanitary conditions in her home.
Osborne says Monroe police and Butler County officials violated tribal court law when they removed the children - along with her three other children - from her home.
"They certainly didn't have the right to take my children away," Osborne said. "They have made my children political prisoners."
The six children were removed July 13 from a mobile home in Lemon Township after officials reported feces on the floor and other conditions that made the home unfit to live in.
Because Arneach lives on a reservation, he is subject to tribal law. As a result of the split jurisdictions, the case has required an unusual legal collaboration between a tribal court judge and Judge Niehaus.
In Ohio, these kinds of cases are especially rare because American Indians comprise about one-fifth of 1 percent of the state's population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Butler County Juvenile Court officials say this is their first encounter with such a case in at least 20 years.
The unsanitary conditions inside the Osborne home justified the immediate removal of the children, said Maggie Devereaux, Butler County Children Service spokeswoman.
Monroe Police Officer Brett Kahny reported he found the children in rooms where the floors and walls were smeared with feces.
A county health inspector declared the mobile home "unfit for human habitation."
Osborne, who says she is part Indian, and her husband, James "Little Hawk" Osborne, who is part Indian, each have been charged with six counts of child endangering. Butler County Children Services also has charged each with six counts of neglect. The case is expected to go to court Tuesday.
The three children fathered by Arneach had been placed with foster families by Children Services. The other three children are with relatives. Osborne, who says she incorporates Indian culture and rituals into her daily life, said the rooms needed to be cleaned, but denied there were feces and urine.
She says that Niehaus will be violating a Cherokee tribal court order that awarded her custody last year of her three children by Arneach.
"Juvenile court is taking jurisdiction it doesn't have," Osborne said.
Butler County has flouted tribal court law, she said, claiming prejudice against Indians has played a role in her legal problems.
Children Services and Juvenile Court officials say they have been careful to avoid stepping on the tribal court's authority. Niehaus has been consulting with a tribal judge in Arneach's tribe, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, about this case, said Rob Clevenger, director of juvenile court operations.
Clevenger said in the 22 years he's worked for juvenile court, this is the only case he's seen involving a jurisdictional dispute with a tribal court.
Chief Justice Harry Martin of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation says jurisdictional disputes between tribal courts and state courts occur infrequently.
"In general, most states give full faith and credit to the orders of the tribal courts," he said. "When you have a jurisdictional conflict, it's usually in divorce and child custody cases, where one party starts the case in one jurisdiction and another party starts the case in another."
Children Services promptly informed the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation about the removal, Devereaux said.
Niehaus will not issue a ruling on the children's custody without first seeking the approval the tribal court judge handling the case, Clevenger said.
"Any ruling he issues will be in agreement with the tribal court," he said.
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