The grandparents of three American Indian girls whose parents were killed in a head-on collision south of Fresno are speaking out in a custody battle with nationwide implications.
They say the girls should live with relatives who are members of a Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians in Placerville – not with relatives in Visalia who have temporary custody of the girls.
“My grandchildren need to know their culture, and the tribe has the resources that will help them throughout their lives,” said Ruben Cuellar of Visalia, whose daughter Sharnae Cuellar was killed in the Dec. 17 collision that also killed her husband, Matthew Cuellar.
Matthew Cuellar’s mother, Stephanie Cuellar of Placerville, also said it was in the children’s best interest to live with her sister, Regina Cuellar, who is a member of the Tribal Council of the Shingle Springs tribe and has been granted guardianship of the girls by the tribe’s court system.
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But on Sept. 2, Judge Morrison C. England ruled in U.S. District Court in Sacramento that the Shingle Springs tribal court order that gave guardianship to Regina Cuellar could not be enforced outside tribal lands. Because of the ruling, the girls, ages 2, 4 and 6, remain in the temporary custody of Efrim and Talisha Renteria of Visalia. Efrim Renteria is Sharnae Cuellar’s uncle.
After the ruling, Regina Cuellar asked England to reconsider his ruling. Oral arguments on her motion were scheduled for Thursday. Instead, England will make a ruling based on written motions that both sides have submitted. It is not immediately known when the judge will rule.
The dispute is complicated because Susanna Renteria, who is Sharnae Cuellar’s mother, wants her three grandchildren to live with her brother, Efrim Renteria, and his wife, Talisha. Matthew Cuellar’s father, Johnny Porras, also has said that he wants his grandchildren to live with the Renterias.
Ruben Cuellar and Stephanie Cuellar, who are not related, spoke out this week because they contend England’s ruling was based on speculation that the girls were being sexually abused when they visited Regina Cuellar and her family.
“There’s no evidence of sexual abuse,” Ruben Cuellar said. “If there was, someone would be in jail by now.”
In his ruling, England said the three girls have never resided on tribal land and the Renterias have cared for the three girls ever since the deaths of their parents. The judge also noted that before the Cuellars were killed, their children had little contact with Matthew Cuellar’s side of the family “and almost no contact with the tribe.”
In addition, England had concerns about the tribal court granting custody to Regina Cuellar after the Renterias contended that they didn’t get a fair hearing in front of tribal Chief Judge Christine Williams. In his ruling, England noted that Williams serves at the pleasure of the Tribal Council, and Regina Cuellar is on the council.
But what apparently swayed England was that two of the Cuellars’ children have told authorities that they were sexually abused during custody visits by one of Regina Cuellar’s relatives. “While the public interest may favor the placement of tribal member minors with tribal member guardians, it favors the prevention of child sexual abuse even more strongly,” England’s ruling says.
Stephanie Cuellar also took issue with England’s portrayal of the custody battle.
After Matthew and Sharnae Cuellar were killed, court records say, Stephanie Cuellar got an emergency order from the Shingle Springs tribal court that gave her custody of the girls. She and her family then went to Visalia, gave the order to the Renterias “and forcibly removed the two youngest minors” while the oldest girl remained in the hospital, England’s ruling says.
“I didn’t forcibly remove them,” Stephanie Cuellar said. “I had a legal court order.”
There’s no evidence of sexual abuse. If there was, someone would be in jail by now.
Ruben Cuellar, the girls’ grandfather
Stephanie Cuellar’s time with her grandchildren was short. During a tribal court hearing on Jan. 22, Williams found Stephanie Cuellar unfit to be guardian, said Fresno attorney Charles Manock, who represents the Renterias. The judge then appointed the Renterias “temporary guardians for the minors and established a schedule of visitation” for Stephanie and Regina Cuellar and their families, England’s ruling said.
Stephanie Cuellar said financial troubles and writing bad checks that ended in several evictions caused her to be deemed unfit. But she said she has been making efforts to become a better person.
“I’m not perfect and I’m not proud of my past. But they (other side) have done things in their past, too,” Stephanie Cuellar said. “I’m not going to bash them. We want to take the high road.”
The custody fight intensified in June, when Williams appointed Regina Cuellar “as the minors’ permanent guardian over the (Renterias’) competing petition and objections,” the ruling says.
England’s Sept. 2 ruling neutralized the tribal order, prompting Nicholas Fonseca, chairman of the Shingle Springs tribe, to say England’s ruling is a significant national issue for all American Indians because it challenges tribal court authority.
I didn’t forcibly remove them. I had a legal court order.
Stephanie Cuellar, the girls’ grandmother
At issue is the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives tribal governments a strong voice when it comes to custody proceedings that involve American Indian children. The act was enacted in 1978 because American Indian children were being removed from their traditional homes at a high rate and placed in non-Indian homes, thus preventing them from knowing their culture.
In court papers, the Shingle Springs tribe contends it has custody rights to the children because Matthew Cuellar was a member of the tribe and therefore his three children are members.
But the Renterias, who have been married nearly eight years, contend the children belong with them because they and the Cuellars shared a love of family and of God. They also said Matthew and Sharnae Cuellar grew up in Visalia and were high school sweethearts.
In addition, Susana Renteria and Johnny Porras have said Matthew Cuellar, 26, and his 24-year-old wife told them that should they die, they wanted their children to live with the Renterias.
Young people’s talk?
Stephanie Cuellar countered, saying it would be foolish to believe a young couple would be talking about death and who would have custody of their children.
Stephanie Cuellar said her son and his wife lived in Visalia most of their lives, except for a 5 1/2 -year period beginning in late 2008 when they moved north so Matthew Cuellar could reconnect with his family and American Indian roots. The couple returned to Visalia and married in March 2014.
Stephanie Cuellar said she and her husband were close to her son, his wife and their children when they lived nearby, and sometimes lived together. When Matthew Cuellar and his family returned to Visalia, Stephanie Cuellar said, she called him frequently.
Stephanie Cuellar said she last saw her son and his wife on Dec. 14, when they took their children to a Christmas party on the Shingle Springs reservation. During the party, Stephanie Cuellar said her son and his wife told her that they wanted to live near the reservation so they could take advantage of the tribe’s resources and benefits for their children. “They were happy and talking about their future with the tribe,” she said.
But three days later they were killed by a suspected drunken driver.