When Christina Brown got together with her soon-to-be ex-husband in the early 1990s, they were poor. But he’s a member of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. When the tribe’s casino opened up a few years later, the checks started rolling in, around $20,000 a month. They moved out of their mobile home into a big house. Nice cars and a 34-foot Fleetwood motor home followed.
After what she described as a worsening domestic situation, she left him in 2007. Brown, who noted that she once had a drug problem, said she’s been clean for years now.
But in other ways, her present looks a lot like her past. She’s on welfare and food stamps, living with her mother in a two-bedroom house, and running four payments behind on her car.
And there’s another crucial difference: she’s responsible for the children. She has five over all — one before her husband, three with him and one after. The three youngest live with her, including two from her husband, but she says he hasn’t paid child support in years, despite the fact that he still gets thousands of dollars a month from the tribe.
“The court ordered him to make all these payments,” Brown said. “But I couldn’t garnish them.”
In fact, the state and federal governments are powerless to make him pay anything. It’s all part of a confusing web of regulations governing American Indians, many of whom are citizens of both the United States and of particular tribes, which function as sovereign nations within the U.S. borders.
Brown was fresh from a court date, in which a judge said he was going to order her husband to jail to serve a short sentence for contempt of court. But his money comes not from a job, with wages that are taxed by the state and federal government; it comes from the tribe’s casino profits, and she can’t touch them. Meanwhile, their home has slipped into foreclosure.
“I would have had half,” Brown said, who said she has blood from at least two tribes but is not an enrolled member. “But there’s nothing to have half of.”
Bob Scheid, a spokesman for the Viejas Tribe, declined to comment.
Another woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said that the father of her child is a member of a non-gaming tribe in California. But even these tribes get $1.1 million a year out of a revenue-sharing plan with gaming tribes. This means he gets $350 a month, she said. Under a ruling by a judge in San Diego County, she said, he owes $40,000 in child support payments, going back 10 years.
“I work three jobs,” she said, “anything would help.” She added: “When the compacts passed, they never put anything in the compacts saying they had to take care of financial obligations. If the tribe doesn’t want to, they don’t have to.”
The federal government has been working for years to help alleviate this problem. The Office of Child Support Enforcement, under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has been operating a Tribal Systems Workgroup since 2002. The mixture of tribal and federal employees works to educate tribes about the problem and suggests ways for tribes to enforce child support laws without ceding tribal sovereignty.
Under the program, the federal government offers grants to tribes of up to $200,000 to set up their own programs to enforce child support laws, and will pay 90 percent of the ongoing cost of these programs. As of late 2008, 30 tribes had approved child support operations through the program. None are in California. Some tribes, notably a group of eight tribes in Oklahoma, have also been negotiating deals that would allow steps like letting the IRS garnish money for child support from members.
But participation is strictly voluntary. Dozens of tribes do participate, but there appears to be only one California tribe that has been working with HHS at all to move towards establishing a program. That would be the Quechan Indian Tribe, which straddles the border between Winterhaven and Yuma, Arizona. The Yurok Tribe in Klamath signed an agreement to enforce child support rules when it signed a gaming compact in 2005.
The main tool the government has to influence tribes to participate is the withholding of some relevant federal funds – funds the many gaming tribes no longer need.
The state did once have an opportune moment to get these tribes to comply, according to Cheryl Schmidt, with the group Stand Up For California: When they signed their gaming compacts with the state. On August 25, she sent a letter to Vicky Turetsky, director Child Support Enforcement with HHS, urging her to help women like Brown.
“Here’s the office tasked with this duty,” Schmidt said. “They should be helping these women. Not just women, I’m sure they’re some men helping too. It would be really nice if a tribe stepped up.”
Brown, meanwhile, said that there have been consequences for going public with her situation. This hasn’t just been comments and innuendo. In 2008, she said, she was beaten up by four women from the tribe while she was out dancing at a casino owned by another Southern California tribe.
More recently, she said, she tried to get her kids enrolled in some federal programs for Indian children. But she couldn’t get her ex-husband, who has the necessary tribal membership she lacks, to sign the forms. She’s lost her once-beautiful hair from the stress, Brown said.
“I didn’t mean for it to happen this way,” Brown said. “Trust me. I would have never had kids if I knew I was going to go this way. I would have gone straight education.”