It is difficult to believe that a father of three who receives upwards of $200,000 per year would refuse to financially support his children. It seems downright impossible that the state would have no power to compel those payments.

Yet that is what many California mothers are facing. If their child's father is a member of a tribe and earns stipends from the profits of his tribe's casinos and similar establishments, the state is largely powerless to compel the tribe member to pay child support from those funds.

American tribes are sovereign nations, and as such, have the right under federal law to govern themselves as would any state or local government. Therefore, county governments have no power over the tribes or their members.

In 2000, California voters approved gambling agreements to regulate tribal casinos in the state, effectively allowing tribes to establish casinos and to distribute the profits among their members. Groups across the state are now saying that California made a fatal error in that agreement: courts cannot order the withholding or garnishment of casino stipends for the payment of child support. "We have no authority to enforce that due to tribal sovereignty," said East County Department of Child Support Services John Rosenthal.

However, a recent court decision may indicate a change in this problematic oversight. Christina Brown, a mother of five who recently filed for divorce from a member of the wealthy Viejas tribe, has been fighting to collect the over $20,000 in child support back pay currently owed by her husband, who receives over $200,000 annually from his tribe. Last month, according to a Riverside County Court transcript, Brown's husband was ordered to pay her $4,000 by Nov. 30, with the remainder of the late payments due by Dec. 31.

Cheryl Schmit, director of the gambling watchdog group Stand Up for California, says that if the state is able to compel these payments in the future, it will benefit not only mothers and children, but also the financially struggling state itself. "Some of these women are now on [welfare]. This is ironic, as one of the reasons our state voters supported tribal gaming was to lift Native Americans off the welfare rolls," she said.

Source: North County Times, "Mom wins round in fight for child support against tribal member", Edward Sifuentes, 17 September 2010