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Tribal Rights Hinder Child Support For Mothers
Collecting child support can be difficult for many mothers, but if the father is Native American, it can be nearly impossible.
Tribes are sovereign nations and don't have to comply with court-ordered child support payments. But some states, including California, are beginning to work with tribes to make sure those payments get to mothers.
Christina Brown lives with her mom and four of her children in Wildomar, Calif., a small town halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. In 2007, Christina left her husband, a tribal member of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, and she's fought ever since to get child support for the three kids they had together.
Christina keeps stacks of boxes in her garage containing the paper trail of her court battle. "These are all just things of me just fighting to get what I'm [owed]," she says. Christina, a high school dropout, represented herself in court. "I've gone so long without support, if I didn't do all of this, I would never see a dollar."
Christina says she wouldn't be able to buy clothes for her children, or pay her mother rent. She's been on and off welfare, lost her house and had two cars repossessed.
According to Riverside County court records, Sonnie Brown had to serve jail time earlier this year for failure to pay child support to Christina. He agreed to pay $30,000 in back-child support, but Christina says he's refused to pay anymore since then, even though he gets a monthly check from the Viejas tribe's casino.
"He makes $13,250 a month," she says. Records confirm that amount. "He goes to the reservation, picks up his check, goes to the casino and cashes it." According to family court documents, Sonnie stopped consistently paying his $2,987 monthly child support in 2009. In April, it was raised to $4,659.
Despite court orders, the state can't touch Sonnie's monthly income from his tribe.
A Few Tribes Take Steps
Sonnie declined an interview, and the Viejas Tribal Council also wouldn't comment on the case. However, the council did recently pass a resolution saying it would consider enforcing child support orders for tribal members on a case-by-case basis.
Across the country, 50 officially recognized tribes in 18 states have used federal funding to help set up and operate child support enforcement programs. In California, however, that's not the case.
"As a sovereign nation, I don't think any tribe wants the state or feds telling them what they have to do," says Chief Judge Richard Blake with the Hoopa Valley Tribal Court. It would be like California telling Mexico to obey its court orders, he says.
Only about 1 in 5 tribes in the state have any kind of consistent child support program, Blake says.
"Traditionally, Native people are taught that we take care of our children and our elders," he says. "Taking care of our children means child support. These children deserve better than what we're giving them at this point."
Gambling Money Raises The Stakes
A vocal critic of Indian gaming, Cheryl Schmit runs a watchdog group called Stand Up for California. She calls the situation "very frustrating" and says more than half a dozen women have called her for help because they can't collect child support from Native American fathers.
"It would appear, in some of these instances, that tribal governments themselves are complicit in protecting these funds from being distributed to mothers and children," Schmit says.
As a result, Schmit says, the taxpayers pick up the tab in the form of food stamps and welfare for these "deadbeat dads."
"We're subsidizing tribal families when tribal governments should be doing that," she says.
Schmit says a good start would be for the state to put complying with child support orders on the table as part of its gaming agreement negotiations with the tribes.
In the meantime, the federal government recently approved one of those tribal child support program grants for the Yurok Tribe, California's largest. It's the first of the 103 tribes in California to receive one. Christina wonders how much longer it will take for all of the tribes to follow.
"It's just sad, because I believe that the Indians have the right to be their own government. They need to do it themselves, and I think Indians should care about other Indians," she says.
Christina says with tribes' big gaming profits, there's no excuse for fathers to shortchange their kids.
This story was produced by KQED and California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.