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Native American tribes shield parents from child support

Carlos Puma/California Watch and KQEDChristina Brown and her children, including 15-year-old son Samsin, live in Wildomar. Some Native American tribes have gone out of their way to protect parents who won't pay child support, asserting their right as a sovereign nation.

Mothers around the state are finding it almost impossible to collect child support from some Native American fathers because tribal governments and businesses are shielding them from court-ordered payments, records and interviews show.

The number of tribes or tribal companies that do not honor state child support orders – by garnisheeing the income or bank accounts of delinquent parents – is murky. The California Department of Child Support Services does not systematically track which businesses, tribal or otherwise, honor support orders.

But Richard Blake, chief judge of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, acknowledged that the majority of tribal governments in the state do not have formal programs for child support enforcement. Blake said only about 20 of 103 federally recognized California tribes have official child support enforcement systems in place.

“Traditionally, Native people are taught that we take care of our children and our elders. Taking care of our children means child support,” Blake said. “These children deserve better than what we’re giving them at this point.”

Blake, who also is the chief judge for the Smith River Rancheria and Redding Rancheria tribal courts, said that while tribes should honor such orders, it is their right as sovereign nations to ignore California’s courts. He said of the 2,500 Hoopa Valley tribal members, up to 40 percent likely will have a child support case in his court.

Collecting child support from a delinquent parent is a difficult task no matter who owes the money. On average each year, the state does not collect about $1 billion in child support payments owed to parents around the state.

For some mothers, collecting child support from a tribal member or father who works for a Native American-owned casino can turn into a years-long losing battle. Although the number of women in this situation is a small percentage of those owed child support in California, interviews and court records reveal a persistent and rarely reported problem among Native American tribes.

On the radio

Listen to this story on NPR's Weekend Edition website.

Christina Brown of Wildomar, a small town between Los Angeles and San Diego, has had little luck getting child support from her ex-husband, Sonnie Brown. Brown, the father of three of her five children, is a member of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, which runs a large and profitable casino near San Diego.

Brown lives with her mom in a small house. Outside in the garage, she points to boxes of court records, the paper trail of her battle to get child support. A high school dropout, she has represented herself in court. With a cigarette dangling from her mouth, she squints at dozens of files.

“These are all just things of me just fighting to get what I’m owed; you know, I’ve gone so long without support, and if I didn’t do all of this, I would never see a dollar,” Brown said.

Since 2008, Brown has been in and out of the Riverside County Superior Court to try to get child support for her children, ages 7, 15 and 17, all Viejas tribal members. A large tattoo on her chest shows off her own Native American heritage.

According to family court documents, Sonnie Brown in 2009 stopped consistently paying his $2,987 monthly child support, which was raised to $4,659 in April. He earns $13,250 a month for his share of gaming profits distributed to members of the tribe, records show.

“He goes to the reservation, picks up his check, goes to the casino and cashes it,” Christina Brown said.

After leaving Sonnie Brown in 2007, the family lost their house in Temecula, and Christina Brown has been on and off welfare. Two cars have been repossessed.

In February, Sonnie Brown served five days in the Riverside County jail for probation violations, including failing to pay child support. At that time, he paid $30,000 to Christina Brown in back payments. But she said he now owes another $30,000 for this year.

She said she has appealed directly to the Viejas Tribal Council, but it has refused to make him pay child support. She said she offered to take a debit card instead so the council could track the money, but it refused to do that either. 

Carlos Puma/California Watch and KQEDChristina Brown keeps boxes of records of her efforts to receive back child support. “These are all just things of me just fighting to get what I’m owed; you know, I’ve gone so long without support, and if I didn’t do all of this, I would never see a dollar,” she says.

“It’s a moral thing when you have children and you sit there and see your children suffer, and you have got to figure out ways to get food … or get school clothes,” Christina Brown said. “It’s a very painful thing to watch your children need.”

Court records show that in March, Sonnie Brown tested positive for drugs and later the court suspended his visitation rights to see the children.

Sonnie Brown declined to comment. His attorney, Joseph Katz, said he has advised Brown that paying the monthly support set by the state court is the most cost-effective route. But Katz acknowledged that laws governing sovereign tribes have complicated the case, which he described as particularly bitter and protracted.

A spokesman for the Viejas Tribal Council, Robert Scheid, said the tribe in June agreed to consider the garnisheeing of gaming stipends from tribal members or wages from delinquent tribal members working at the Viejas Casino. Scheid said the council will do this on a case-by-case basis and could still refuse to honor state support orders. 

“It creates an opportunity for a remedy but still preserves the tribal council’s discretion,” Scheid said of the tribe’s June resolution. He declined to comment about the Brown case.

The unusual legal situation has angered Cheryl Schmit, a vocal critic of Indian gaming. Schmit, who runs the watchdog group Stand Up for California, says taxpayers have to pick up the tab for these “deadbeat dads” when the mothers are forced to get assistance from state welfare programs.

“We’re subsidizing tribal families when tribal governments should be doing that,” Schmit said. “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.”

Struggle to address families’ needs

In 2010, the state managed about $2.46 billion in child support owed to parents, but the Department of Child Support Services and local agencies did not collect about $1 billion in payments. About 60 percent of child support payments are collected by withholding money from employees’ paychecks, similar to income taxes.

Tribal gaming lawyer Colin Hampson, with the firm Sonosky, Chambers, Sachse, Endreson & Perry in San Diego, has represented the Viejas tribe in the past. He said that 20 years ago, California tribes were destitute. Even after Indian gaming took off in 2000, Hampson said, many tribal governments still do not have their own court systems or law enforcement.

“Some of the tribes have more resources now, and how they allocate those resources to address some of the numerous economic, social and infrastructure needs is a tremendous task,” Hampson said. “So tribes need some time to address all of those needs, including child support.”

That’s hard to explain to Lynda Beck of Santa Rosa, who said she never consistently received child support for her disabled son, who is now 25 years old. The father owes the state about $13,000 to reimburse taxpayers for welfare payments that Beck received, and he owes Beck about $6,000 in back child support.

The father of her son is a member of the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians. Beck said she has asked the tribal council and father to honor the state child support order. But she said the Lytton tribe maintains that it does not have to do so. Representatives from the tribe did not return calls for comment.

“State laws can’t be enforced and they hide behind the sovereignty, and there has to be something in place that holds them to the same laws that everyone else has,” Beck said.

She has records detailing what tribal members have made from San Pablo Lytton Casino revenues. In April 2008, members received a $40,000 payment from the tribe as part of their share of casino proceeds, the documents show.

But because the father was listed by the state as unemployed, he was required to pay her $50 a month in child support. According to state records, in November of that year, the father paid Beck $23.97 in support. Beck said she has asked the state to reflect his casino stipend as part of his income, in order to boost his support payment, but she has been unsuccessful.

Like Christina Brown, Beck has had to rely on the state government to give her welfare and food stamps throughout her son’s life.

Schmit, with Stand Up for California, said there is a lack of political will in the Capitol to take on tribal sovereignty and child support. According to the California Gambling Control Commission, since 2006, gaming tribes have contributed more than $761 million to the state budget, and state records show tribal governments are some of the biggest campaign contributors.

“It’s very frustrating,” Schmit said. “So there needs to be a solution to this.”

­Answers in gaming compacts

One enforcement answer could come through state gaming compacts that would cover more than half of the tribes in the state. Since 1999, Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger negotiated agreements with 67 tribes to expand Indian gambling.

Native American tribes in California employ about 53,000 people, mainly at the Pechanga, Cache Creek, San Manuel and Thunder Valley resorts and casinos scattered throughout the state.

Only six tribes have included honoring child support in their gaming compacts, and the provisions apply only to their casino employees.

Those are some of the largest in California – four are in Southern California: the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Morongo Band of Mission Indians, Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in Riverside County and the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County. The other two are in Northern California – the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians in El Dorado County and the Yurok Tribe in Del Norte County.

Child support problems surface with non-gaming tribes as well. Sheila Pinto has three children with a member of the Jamul Indian Village near San Diego. Pinto said her ex-husband receives monthly payments from his tribe, but owes her about $30,000 in back payments and isn’t paying his current support of nearly $1,500 per month. 

“Sometimes, even birthdays would go by and we’d have nothing, and we knew he had the money,” Sheila Pinto said. 

She said her relationship with some tribal council members is so strained that she has not formally appealed her case to them, although she has spoken with some members about it. The tribe does not have a written policy on appealing such cases.

Julia Lotta, the Jamul Indian Village secretary and treasurer, said the tribe has just 34 adult members and the tribal council has never been formally contacted to help settle a child support dispute. She said the council would consider enforcing a state child support order but couldn’t predict the outcome.

“The tribe cannot tell an individual what to do with his money,” Lotta said. “It’s not their responsibility to tell him how to spend it.” 

For the state government, respecting tribal sovereignty while also trying to enforce child support orders is tricky. Bill Otterbeck, a deputy director for the Department of Child Support Services, said the state has no idea how much money is owed by delinquent Native American parents or others who work for tribes. He said the state respects tribal sovereignty and its goal is to build partnerships with tribes.

“It takes some time for that to happen, considering that we have over a hundred tribes, I think that it’s a long-term effort,” Otterbeck said.

Tribal court judge Blake agrees this won’t happen immediately but said there is some hope. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement recently approved a $500,000 grant for the Yurok Tribe - California's largest, with 5,000 members - to set up and operate a child support program. Although 50 other tribes in the U.S. have received grants from this program, the Yurok Tribe is the first from California.

“They’re going to look at that like it’s a tribal program that’s not state-operated, or federally operated, that’s not the Big Brother telling them what to do,” Blake said.

He said the next step is to bring tribes together, with the help of federal grant money, to operate two tribal child support enforcement offices in Northern and Southern California.

But Christina Brown wonders how much longer it will take for this to happen. She said it’s hard to believe that any Native American tribal council would deny support for children.

“It’s just sad because I believe that the Indians have the right to be their own government; they need to do it themselves,” she said. “And I think Indians should care about other Indians.”

Listen to this story on KQED's The California Report.

Staff writer Emily Hartley contributed to this report. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick. Freelance reporter Kelley Weiss produced this story for KQED and California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

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