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Chickasaw receive first direct grant to enforce child support payments

ADA, Okla. - Collecting child support in Indian country has been difficult at best for many tribes, but in 1966 the Chickasaw Nation made money owed children by their parents a priority.

Five years later the nation's Child Support Enforcement Office has collected nearly $1.5 million in child support.

The office not only collects child support owed Chickasaw children, but for tribes throughout the state. A one-man office grew to an eight-member team whose success earned a $1.2 million federal grant to continue its efforts, the first direct grant to an American Indian Nation specifically to enforce child support payments.

Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby and federal officials signed a proclamation July 16 acknowledging the unique status.

Diann Dawson, principal deputy, assistant secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services participated.

"The Chickasaw Nation is at the forefront of new beginnings in tribal relations for the nation's child support enforcement program," Dawson said. "After you, others will follow in a new way of doing business. A very new way for the child support program. You have set a new standard for the tribal nations across America."

Jerry Sweet, the nation's child support enforcement director said the grant would "help strengthen the partnership we have developed with the state, federal and other tribal governments. More importantly, these funds will help us continue to pursue our mission of providing a voice for Indian children and holding parents accountable for the support of their children."

Ray Weaver, division administrator of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services Child Support Division noted his appreciation of the hard work by Sweet and his team.

"I'm honored to have helped this happen. I feel that Jerry Sweet has really established his credentials and we have a great deal of confidence in his leadership in the process he's been going through in developing this office. He's developed a good organization to take this responsibility. We're very comfortable that they will continue to do a good job.

"We have a good relationship with Jerry and his group. We certainly expect that will continue, because we're going to do everything we can to promote this relationship and make sure it continues to be successful."

Sweet was the only staff member in the beginning and admitted he is proud of the way his office has not only grown, but also been successful in its mission.

"This history-making grant award provides confirmation that our child support enforcement office is doing an excellent job," Anoatubby said. "Of greater consequence is the fact that it provides additional funding to assist us in expanding that good work so that even more Indian children will receive the financial and emotional support they deserve."

Now the unit has a satellite office in Purcell, and there are plans to use grant funds to hire six additional staff members and open offices in Pawhuska and Miami.

"This office serves far more children in a larger area than when it first opened less than five years ago," Anoatubby said. "These funds will help us provide offices in strategic locations throughout the state so the families we serve can have easier access to these valuable services."

In 1998, at Anoatubby's direction, the office expanded to serve all American Indian children in Oklahoma. That year $22,000 was collected. Collections this year are expected to exceed $900,000.

The office collected more than $1.5 million and helped establish paternity and child support orders for more than 300 children.

Team members said child support enforcement can be a difficult problem under any situation and before 1998, it was an almost impossible situation for many Native American children. Custodial parents had little recourse in enforcing child support orders issued by tribal courts because state child support enforcement agencies didn't have jurisdiction of non-custodial parents in such cases, they said.

The tables turned. A renewed agreement between state and federal governments and the nation made the enforcement services available to all American Indian children in Oklahoma when a tribal order was issued or the non-custodial parent was employed by a tribe.

A first-place award from the Oklahoma Child Support Enforcement Association recognized the Chickasaw enforcement team in September 1999 for the largest average collections per case.

"We have already seen this office help hundreds of Indian families," Anoatubby said. "With this new infusion of federal funds, there is little doubt we will be able to help even more children and strengthen more families."

Rep. Wes Watkins, R-Okla., on hand for the award, added his praise. "The Chickasaw Nation's child support enforcement efforts have been very successful in improving the lives of Native American children by helping to ensure court-ordered child support is collected.

"I want to commend Gov. Anoatubby and the Chickasaw Nation for their leadership on this issue, and for being recognized with this historic grant from the federal government."