Cheyenne River studies complex custody case


EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. - The parents of a child taken from their home in the midst of a long-standing custody dispute are seeking his return by asking the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe to intervene on their behalf.

The 13-year-old boy, who was finishing his work for the final weeks in the last quarter of the school year at Cheyenne-Eagle Butte Middle School, was taken from the home of his biological parents Bill and Tifa Carter May 1 and placed in the home of his mother's ex-husband.

Tifa Creek Carter divorced Chris Ravenshead in 1988, but her former husband claimed custody of his own two daughters and the Carter boy.

Although, Tifa Carter divorced Ravenshead, she continued to live with him to protect her children from Ravenshead who, she alleges, abused his family.

Carter said he met his wife in 1988 and she gave birth to their son the same year. Ravenshead, convinced he was the child's natural father, filed for custody under the original divorce settlement.

The Carters and their son are enrolled members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

The Custer man sought custody of the child and his two daughters. The Carters pursued the custody case in tribal court and won in 1997, but Ravenshead eluded child welfare authorities when they arrived to take custody of the boy in Custer, S.D., challenging them to provide a state court order.

An issue that complicated the case further was that Carter wasn't able to establish paternity in early court hearings. A Cheyenne River tribal law predating a tribal court order allowing for the boy's return to his biological parents, held that a man couldn't claim paternity beyond five years of the birth of a child, Carter said.

Carter's claim as the boy's father came in 1997 and even though blood tests and a birth certificate naming him as the boy's natural father were provided as proof, it wasn't considered as evidence.

He said the law was changed last year, allowing men to claim paternity at any time.

Carter said Judge James Chasing Hawk signed a second custody order and a second attempt was made to retrieve the boy. Carter's wife took custody of one of her daughters, but the other remained behind, along with her son.

After a series of hearings, in 1997 the state courts awarded Ravenshead custody.

With the state court decision against them, the Carters enlisted the help of friends and relatives on the Pine Ridge reservation, hoping to gain custody of their son. From Pine Ridge, the pair went to the Custer Elementary School which the boy was attending and retrieved him from the playground. Carter said they drove back to the Pine Ridge reservation where Chairman John Yellow Bird Steele assigned an escort who followed them back to the Cheyenne River reservation.

Tribal Judge Chasing Hawk told the couple the children would be safe, but a decision by a tribal appeals court, that took more than two and a half years to render, returned the boy to Ravenshead's custody.

A judge issued a search warrant and ordered the chief of police on the Cheyenne River reservation to execute the order Monday, April 25.

"We filed for a stay of that order in tribal civil court and the appellate, and the stay was denied," Carter said.

Under Cheyenne River tribal law a child can decide where he wishes to reside at the age of 12, but the boy's choice of where he wants to live was never considered, Carter said.

Carter's wife said she waited outside of the councilman's residence and saw at least half a dozen police cars descend on her home searching for the boy.

"They made a public spectacle out of something that was absolutely negotiable," Carter said.

Chasing Hawk called the judge who signed the order hoping to get a stay so the boy could at least finish his final weeks in school, but the appellate judge denied his request.

An official with child protective services said the seventh-grader didn't want to leave. Despite his plea to remain and after a more than two-hour standoff, Carter said officers took his son away in handcuffs.

Carter and his wife were taken into custody until the boy was on his way to Custer, Carter said.

"We vowed we wouldn't let this happen to him.,"

Carter contacted Congressman Tim Johnson's office for assistance and made calls to civil rights groups.

"Our rights have been violated and most importantly our son's rights were violated," he said. "The system fails when it allows the acts of adults to make a child a victim."

The tribal representatives referred the matter to the tribe's legal department, he said.

"The rights of the child is what is going to be investigated. They haven't really promised anything as far as intervention is concerned. That we will have to get once we get an attorney," he said.

Carter said he was only able to talk to his son a few days after the event.