JACKI LYDEN, host: In California, many mothers are finding it almost impossible to collect child support payments from Native American fathers. That's because tribes are sovereign nations, and members don't have to comply with court-ordered child support payments. Kelley Weiss reports on how California tribes are dealing with delinquent fathers.
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CHRISTINA BROWN: Take your juice with you, dear. Take your juice with you.
KELLEY WEISS: Christina Brown lives with her mom and four of her kids in Wildomar - a small town halfway between L.A. and San Diego. On a Saturday afternoon, the kids are watching TV and horsing around.
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UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Stop. Mom.
WEISS: In 2007, Christina left her husband, Sonnie Brown, a tribal member of the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. And she's fought him ever since to get child support for the three kids they had together.
BROWN: This is the thing to show the child support.
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WEISS: Out in her garage, Christina points to a stack of boxes, the paper trail of her court battle. A cigarette dangles from her mouth, and a large tattoo on her chest shows off her own Indian heritage. The high school dropout has represented herself in court.
BROWN: You know, these are all just things that I meet - fighting to get what I'm owed, you know. I've gone so long without support. And if I didn't do all this, I would never see a dollar.
WEISS: Christina's been on and off welfare, lost her house, and had two cars repossessed. According to Riverside County court records, after not paying child support, Sonnie had to serve jail time earlier this year. And he agreed to pay $30,000 in back child support. But Christina says since then, he's refused to pay any more, even though he gets a monthly check from the Viejas tribe's casino.
BROWN: He makes $13,250 a month. He goes to the reservation, picks up his check, goes to the casino and cashes it.
WEISS: Despite court orders, the state can't touch Sonnie's monthly income from his tribe. The Viejas Tribal Council won't comment on Christina's case, but it recently passed a resolution saying it would consider enforcing child-support orders for tribal members on a case-by-case basis. Sonnie also declined an interview.
Across the country, 50 officially recognized tribes in 18 states have used federal funding to help set up and operate child- support enforcement programs. But in California, that's not the case.
CHIEF JUDGE RICHARD BLAKE (Hoopa Valley Tribal Court): As a sovereign nation, you know, I don't think that any tribe wants the state or feds telling them what they have to do.
WEISS: That's the chief judge with the Hoopa Valley Tribal Court, Richard Blake. Imagine, Blake says, California telling Mexico to obey its court orders. Blake says only about one in five tribes in the state have any kind of consistent child-support program.
BLAKE: You know, traditionally, Native people are taught that we take care of our children and our elders. And taking care of our children means child support. These children deserve better than what we're giving them at this point.
CHERYL SCHMIT: It's very frustrating.
WEISS: Cheryl Schmit is a vocal critic of Indian gaming who runs a watchdog group, Stand Up for California. She says more than half a dozen women have called her for help because they can't collect child support from Native American fathers.�
SCHMIT: It would appear, in some of these instances, that tribal governments themselves are complicit in protecting these funds from being distributed to mothers and children.
WEISS: As a result, Schmit says, the taxpayers pick up the tab in the form of food stamps and welfare for these deadbeat dads.
SCHMIT: We're subsidizing tribal families when tribal governments should be doing that.
WEISS: Schmit says a good start would be for the state to put complying with child-support orders on the table as part of its gaming agreement negotiations with the tribes. In the meantime, the federal government recently approved one of those tribal child- support program grants for the Yurok Tribe, California's largest. It's the first of the 103 tribes in California to get one. But for moms like Christina Brown, she wonders how much longer it will take for all of the tribes to follow.�
BROWN: It's just sad because, you know, I believe that the Indians have the right to be their own government. They need to do it themselves. And I think Indians should care about other Indians.
WEISS: Brown says now with the tribe's big gaming profits, there's no excuse for fathers to shortchange their kids.
For NPR News, I'm Kelley Weiss.
LYDEN: This story was produced in association with NPR member station KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
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