Notes From A Single Parent: Collecting Child Support in Indian Country, Part 1

I’m a sucker for a good sob story. In the parking lot at Wal-Mart, I was approached by a young, single mother looking for a handout. Brenda gave me her song and dance about how her ex-husband didn’t want to be married anymore, and left her with two small children and no way to feed them. She seemed desperate, so I gave her $20 . . . hook, line and sinker. It’s certainly possible that I was hustled. But I saw pictures of Brenda’s two adorable kids and didn’t want to take that chance.

It got me thinking, though: How many other Brendas are out there? Single moms—and dads—who are struggling every day (some even panhandling) to provide for their children, with no financial support, whatsoever, from the other parent? 

I know first-hand that it’s difficult enough for parents to navigate their way through state-run child-support systems. But in Indian country, when you throw in issues of sovereignty, tribal courts, per capita payments and multiple jurisdictions . . . forget about it! 

In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which amended Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, allowing tribes to receive federal money to develop and operate child support programs. According to the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, there are 340 Native American tribes, more than 238 Alaska Native Village governments and organizations, and 245 Tribal Courts potentially eligible to apply for these direct funds. 

Courtesy Greendeer

Samantha Greendeer, Ho-Chunk/Oneida, Of-Counsel at Shanker & Kewenvoyouma, PLLC, a national firm headquartered in Tempe, Arizona

A number of tribes have already jumped on board and have child support systems or a collection mechanism in place, including the Chickasaw and Osage Nations in Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina and the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin, which has passed laws to ensure that parents pay child support on incomes within the tribe’s jurisdiction.

But for too many other tribes, creating and/or enforcing child support actions continues to be a huge hurdle for a number of reasons. To try to make sense of this complex and delicate issue, I spoke with Samantha (Greendeer) Skenandore, Ho-Chunk/Oneida, Of-Counsel at Shanker & Kewenvoyouma, PLLC, a national firm headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, focused on the practice of federal Indian law.

What do you think is the biggest problem with collecting child support in the Native community?

I think the backbone of the problem on both sides of the fence is that there is a lot of misunderstanding about multi-jurisdictional issues. Folks don’t understand what sovereignty means. There is a belief that tribes are not complying with federal law… that tribes are trying to avoid enforcement of support of children, keep gaming revenues to themselves and protect tribal members from foreign orders. In reality, the mechanisms for tribes to have their own child support agencies were not anticipated by Congress, so the difficulty for tribes is that you have all these federal laws that apply to child support and families that also interplay differently within different tribes in their jurisdiction.

What is currently being done in Indian country to make child support easier to enforce and collect?

Many tribes throughout Indian country have already passed various laws and have even developed child support offices or agencies to address this critical need. In addition, there are various state and federal provisions that allow for full faith and credit (recognizing and applying) of foreign child support judgments (those judgments made in outside jurisdictions). There are literally hundreds of tribes out there with active tribal courts that possess the ability to entertain the enforcement of child support orders. In addition, collaborative efforts are underway, including those made by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), to address shortcomings in federal legislation and support of these efforts. The tribes that might be having the most difficulty are those that can’t strike an agreement with local and state child support agencies.

There is a perception that tribal courts intentionally make it difficult for single parents to collect the monies necessary to support their children. How do you respond?

I think the stigma here is that it’s a tribal court. It’s unknown foreign law. Parents feel because they have to respect that sovereignty and those jurisdictional issues and potentially new laws that apply to them and the children…that the tribe is doing something unfair to them. Unfortunately, that’s the popular sentiment that we hear mainly from non-tribal members, people who don’t understand that tribe or culture or that particular jurisdiction, or are largely uneducated on sovereignty issues.

What advice do you have for these parents who are caught up in this complicated process and not happy with the outcomes?

Tribal jurisdiction over members and their children has always been there—it’s nothing new. It’s kind of synonymous with “Buyer Beware.” It’s more “Parents Beware.” If you choose to marry a tribal member and have children who are eligible to be enrolled in a foreign government or jurisdiction, that’s something that happens long before there’s even a child support order. Those are choices you are taking on when you decide to have a child with this person. Or vice versa, if you are a Native person having a non-Native child, you must understand that your child may be subject to dual citizenship and therefore subject to two different laws.

In next week’s installment of “Notes From A Single Parent,” Lynn continues her conversation with Attorney Samantha Skenandore about the proper steps a single parent can take to get a child support order in place within Indian country.

Lynn Armitage is a freelance writer in Northern California, and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.