CANADIAN COUNTY, Okla. (KFOR) – A custody tug-of-war is unfolding in Canadian County between a couple, who has been fostering a little boy, and a Native American tribe.
This case has a particularly interesting twist because this baby boy may not be a tribal citizen.
He was born to a mother accused of neglect; deprived from day one.
Baby boy E.J. was taken into state custody before he even left the hospital.
The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes stepped in to find a foster placement for E.J. and three other siblings.
Their father is a member of the tribe.
“There are siblings to this child who we do have confirmed who the mother and father are in that situation. Those children are eligible to be members of this particular tribe,” said attorney, Linque Gillett.
The tribe has jurisdiction over Indian children, which is how Robyn Hopkins came to be the foster mom.
Hopkins was working as an attorney for the Cheyenne Arapaho Nation when Indian Child Welfare (ICW) workers asked her to step in and foster the newborn.
“Everyone was at a loss because there was nowhere for him to go,” Hopkins remembers. “And so, I said I’m an open DHS home and I can take him.”
Robyn and Courtney Hopkins are married.
They have three biological children of their own.
Courtney is a nurse. Robyn is a Family Law attorney.
“He was a premature baby on oxygen, needing severe needs. My wife and I, we have had premature babies. And so, we specialize in that.”
The Hopkins are in good standing with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (DHS).
They have successfully fostered eight other children; each time, returning endangered children to a restored parent or adoptive home.
In order to foster baby E.J., the Hopkins were approved as an ICW home through the Absentee Shawnee Tribe.
The family took special care to honor his Native American heritage.
“We, of course, would respect that and teach him his culture and all the things that they want you to do,” said Courtney Hopkins.
According to Robyn Hopkins, earlier this year, the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribes called her to inform her when they learned the baby’s acknowledged father, wasn’t actually the father.
A paternity test confirmed E.J. has a different father than his siblings.
This baby has no Cheyenne Arapaho blood; not one drop.
“Paternity was established and confirmed. The acknowledged father is not the father at that point,” said Gillett. “This child is no longer eligible to be a member of this tribe. There was one other tribe out there. We have confirmation that the child’s not eligible for enrollment in that tribe either.”
The mother is a descendent of the Puyallup Tribe in Washington State, but doesn’t qualify for tribal membership. Her children do not qualify either.
“My clients have been caring for this child for more than a year in this tribal court. They’ve received no services from the tribe. There’s been few visits by the Indian Child Welfare staff to the home. They’ve received zero adoption assistance or foster care,” said Gillett.
When the Hopkins realized their foster baby wasn’t tribal, they asked a district court in Canadian County to grant guardianship.
The tribe opposed the guardianship, then held a secret hearing in Tribal Court, where a Tribal judge granted an order to take the baby back.
“I just don’t understand why they want to hold onto him so much. I don’t understand why they would root him out from the only family that he knows,” said Courtney Hopkins. “Why can’t someone just say, we messed up. That’s what I do when I mess up. I just don’t understand.”
Last week, ICW workers came to the Hopkins home unannounced, escorted by Canadian County Sheriff’s deputies to remove baby E.J. from the home.
“The tribe does not know right now that he had two doctor’s appointments this week. They don’t know that he’s having medical issues with his spine and how those are going to be rehabilitated. They don’t know that Sooner Start has been in our home once a month, sometimes twice a month since we brought him home. They don’t even know what he’s immunized with. They don’t know. They don’t know about this kid,” said Robyn Hopkins.
The Hopkins family asked the Oklahoma State Supreme Court to step in to reverse the Tribal Court order removing the baby.
Late Friday afternoon, the high court denied an emergency stay.
KFOR went to the Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribe to talk to the Attorney General about why the nation wants custody of a non-tribal baby.
Attorney General Antonio Church would not answer our questions on-camera or off-camera.
All cases of deprived children are confidential.
The tribe released this written statement:
“The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and the ICW Program cannot comment due to the confidentiality of this matter, however, the Tribe has proceeded in a lawfully appropriate manner. Any narrative to the contrary is fundamentally flawed and lacks legal justification.”
Baby E.J.’s crib at the Hopkins home has been empty since last week.
“There’s this understanding right now that the tribes have sovereign immunity and you can’t overstep onto their, into their courts. But in this case, it’s very clear that there is an astounding amount of evidence, legal argument and analysis to say that they’ve got no bearing on this child,” said Robyn Hopkins.
Robyn and Courtney Hopkins took his things to the tribal shelter.
They have no idea if they will ever see him again.
The biological mother said in tribal court that she wants her baby boy to be left in the care of the Hopkins family.