Notes From A Single Parent: Collecting Child Support in Indian Country, Part 2

Lynn Armitage
January 27, 2013

Last week, I spoke about child support issues with Samantha (Greendeer) Skenandore, a Ho-Chunk/Oneida who works Of-Counsel at Shanker & Kewenvoyouma, PLLC, a national firm headquartered in Tempe, Arizona, focused on the practice of federal Indian law. Samantha touched on the complexities involved in obtaining support orders within tribes, and the difficulties sometimes in enforcing them.  This week, Samantha offers some advice to single parents about how to navigate your way through the whole child support process.

So, let’s say a single parent needs help supporting her children.  How does she get the ball rolling in Indian Country?

There is no road map for any one tribe.  Each tribe has its own structure. The best thing to do…is call the tribal court staff, the clerk of court, and ask them if they take child support cases. Let them know that you are out of the jurisdiction and have a child who’s enrolled or is eligible to be enrolled and that you are pursuing child support. If you don’t have an order and want to get one, and you want to do it all in one jurisdiction, find out if that tribe does it there first. If they do, then come into the tribal court to fill out the forms for a very nominal fee. So you can initiate the whole action in tribal court if that tribe has that ability.

Should these parents hire lawyers to represent them in tribal court?

They can either represent themselves, like in any other court, or hire an attorney.  Tribal courts are very well known for having lay advocates available, so they have a list of individuals in the tribal bar who can help and walk you through process. There are resources there, and most jurisdictions have those available.

What if a parent already has an order and just needs it enforced?

Now if you already have an order from the state, a standing order that is not due to be modified for whatever reason, it’s a good order and you just want it enforced within a tribe … then you need to ask the court to exercise its ability to have full faith and credit, which means to honor a foreign judgment and enforce it.  Depending on the tribal jurisdiction, tribes usually pass their own child support laws or ordinances.  Identify the laws that are favorable to you – and this is where you probably want to get someone to help. You need to understand what the tribe on the books allows to be garnished to enforce child support and then seek that out.

So a parent gets the order from tribal court. Then what?

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

Once you get the order for child support, the tribe is actually the employer. Just like in any other jurisdiction, they are required by law to withhold child support payments.  So they’ll withhold that appropriate percentage of per capita and percentage from payroll and will pay that to the individual or to an agency, depending on how the tribe has its process set up. The tribe usually has a formula, just like the state does. They try to maximize what they can garnish out of that payment to be fair to that parent and to the children. They can’t take 100% of wages just because children need it. That parent needs to eat, get gas and get to work, otherwise they won’t have a job and nobody’s getting paid.

How does the parent receive the money?

There are three different ways to get the money:  They can process it to the state agency if they have honored a foreign judgment; they could process it to the individual directly; or if the tribe has established a child support agency, they process it to that agency and the agency will facilitate that directly to you.

Are there any repercussions for parents who dodge their support?

I haven’t heard of any civil or criminal laws about that.  I can’t speak for all tribes, but generally tribal communities are just that.  The culture and tradition is to raise the child from the community. I have looked at a number of tribal child support laws, and the way that they express their policy statement and how they have carved out their provisions often centers around a very empowered and extended kinship. I haven’t seen the deadbeat-dad syndrome in Indian Country because everybody accepts that responsibility; it’s not just any one individual’s job to take care of that child.

How long do you think it will it take to get the child support process mainstreamed in the Native community?

There is no set time for that.  These are all sovereign, independent nations with varying resources, varying political status and therefore, varying degrees of jurisdiction.  I see more and more tribes applying for federal assistance through the Department of Human Services that will help them get their child support agencies up and running.   How resourceful a tribe is becomes less important when federal grants are available to make the child support agencies more likely to happen.

Lynn Armitage

With legislation potentially happening, with tribes learning from themselves, and people forging cooperative intergovernmental agreements – we are now in a better place than we have ever been.  And it’s only getting better.

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