While all of my writing, thus far, has unintentionally excluded information pertaining to tribal child support enforcement, the recent settlement of a class action suit brought these victims of the child support hustle to the forefront. According to the Administration for Children & Families or ACF (2015), The Cobell vs, Salazar case involved claims that the federal government violated its trust duties and mismanaged individual Indian trust funds. The lawsuit has been in litigation for more than 100 years and was finally settled in 2009. The settlement amount of $3.3 billion was part of the Claims Reduction Act of 2010 which was signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 8th at the Whitehouse. The Three Affiliated Tribe Division of Child Support or the TAT DCSE on North Dakota has constructed an underhanded method to seize payments from noncustodial parents that owe arrears on their child support cases. This tribe is not the first to realize that it could possibly collect on the overdue child support debt owed by its tribe members. The difference between TAT and other tribes is that the other tribe officials recognized the protections that the settlement monies held and tried other approaches to secure some type of payment.
One of the first Tribes to collect on the federal settlement was the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. According to The Child Support Report (2012), the tribe’s settlement fund distributed was not eligible for garnishments. The ‘no garnishment’ rule is supposed to apply to other government monies such as VA benefits and Social Security awards, but unfortunately, the restrictions are not always followed when collecting child support payments. This did not deter the Coeur d’Alene child support staff from exploring other avenues in order to recoup a portion of the delinquent child support money from parents. The staff, instead of garnishing the payments, contacted all noncustodial parents in their caseload, by phone and letter, to encourage parents to discuss debt management on their case(s), (ACF, 2012). Even though the noncustodial parents were under no legal obligation to pay any money from the settlement, the parents made strong efforts to pay some money to the child support offices.
The agency reported that the Coeur d’Alene child program’s 2012 3rd quarter collections increased 76.25 percent over the 2nd quarter, (Mathieson, 2012). This proves that most parents will pay support and provide for their children when they have the money to pay. By utilizing other collection tactics, such as negotiations and open communication, the agency was able to collect money without violating federal laws. This cannot be said about other tribal child support agencies as they attempt to raid the pockets of the recipients of federal settlement monies. The TAT DCSE officers went through great pains to collect payments from the settlement. As outlined in The Child Support Report (2015), by mid-December, the division collected more than $240,000 in payments from a 1996 class action law suit that had been applied to child support arrears. This is quite an extraordinary accomplishment especially when it is taken into account that this money is supposedly protected from any garnishments.
One of the collection tactics used by TAT DCSE officers involved restricting certain accounts once settlement payments had been distributed. According to ACF (2015), program officials decided to make a concerted effort to restrict accounts of obligors with arrears exceeding $1,000. Although the child support agencies attribute its practices to providing what is in the best interest of the children, illegally obtaining payments should not be permitted under any circumstances. The federal government provides a lengthy list of monies exempt from garnishments. According to Vicki Turestky, Commissioner for the Office of Child Support Enforcement or OCSE (2013), inappropriate garnishments result in financial hardships for the parties, and are contrary to law. That was of no consideration when the TAD DSCE began crafting is plan to relieve parents of their settlement payments. Staff members filed numerous motions and participated in court hearings to get orders in place before the funds were distributed, (ACF, 2015). Cobell attorneys began diligently fighting in an effort to protect its clients and the settlement payouts from returning to the hands of the very government that had fought for years against the lawsuit. The TAT child support officers decided to use another maneuver in an attempt to snatch thousands of dollars away from parents and children.
The lawyers at Cobell filed the necessary paperwork to ensure that parents received their money directly while, hopefully, avoiding any garnishments. The child support officers, determined to confiscate at least a couple of hundred dollars, began focusing all efforts on collecting from the indebted tribal parents. The office suspended other child support duties for a two-to-three day period so that all staff could obtain proper orders, (ACF, 2015). The department officials, adamant in securing a portion of the $25 million owed in arrears, seemed to forget that the settlement money was exempt from garnishment and proceeded full steam ahead with the collection process. Eventually, the scheming of the child support workers, no matter how underhanded and illegal, paid off for the agency. The Garden City Group, a company tasked with the logistical operations and distribution of the payouts, struck a deal that was a more beneficial for the tribe then the settlement legatees.
According to the ACF (2015), individuals would receive 50 percent of funds due and payable to them and the child support office would receive the other 50 percent. This agreement could possibly be a favorable alternative for both parents and the children if the state did not have its hat in the ring for money. The TAT DCSE, no different than any other child support enforcement office in any state, lists a very significant clause in its child support distribution policies. Since the garnishing of the settlement money is illegal, there is no direct entries that deal with the collection and distribution of such funds. However, similar offsets can be used to demonstrate the distribution rules. Federal income tax refunds, which are government funds, are subject to offsets when a parent owes child support debt. The TAT DCSE reported the Federal income tax refunds can be offset for past-due support of over $500 owed on behalf of minor children not receiving cash assistance and offset refunds for debt over $150 owed to the state that public assistance has been provided to the family.
Since most child support debt is held by parents with low or no income, it can be deduced that most of the children reside in households that currently or have previously received some type of state assistance. The law of the TAT DCSE is no different to the laws that govern the land, meaning that the state can be the primary and initial recipient of money collected on behalf of the low-income children. The TAT DCSE reinforces that money collected by federal tax offsets must go first to repay the state and federal governments for assistance provided before the money can be distributed to the families. Despite the fact that the TAT workers finagled opportunities to invade individual disbursement accounts in order to satisfy a child support debt, the children , in all likelihood, will not benefit from one dollar of the $240,000 collected in their names. The proof can be found by reviewing the reported distribution of monies over the past years.
North Dakota, as a state, does not pass-through or disregard any money to its TANF (past or present) families. As of 2013, the total amount of arrears owed was $191,664,331 which includes the 6.5% of interest charged on late child support payments. The collection of this lawsuit award will only add to the large amount of revenue that North Dakota and all states generate by using children as justification for its deceptions. Thanks to the due diligence of this enforcement agency, fifty percent of the settlement money can be combined with the $16,746,155 of undistributed child support collections to equal quite a hefty sum, especially for unearned income.
Together, as a nation, the American people must band together to end the unconstitutional and illegal practices of state, federal, and tribal child support agencies. It is not enough that wages are garnished, licenses suspended, and parents are jailed because of child support debt. Settlements that have been awarded because of a wrong perpetrated against Native Americans are now being seized and returned to the very government named as the defendant in the lawsuit. Not only was the law enforced in this and in too many other cases, the children do not directly, nor indirectly, benefit from the money. As public programs continue to shrink, government revenues will continue to balloon. This is, of course, unless we, the people, demand our parental and financial freedoms back from the government. Our lives and our children’s lives depend on this fight for reform to the child support system.
Administration for Children & Families. (2012, October). Child support report. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/programs/css/csr1211.pdf
Administration for Children & Families. (2015, January). January 2015 child support report | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/january-2015-child-support-report
Office of Child Support Enforcement, & Turetsky, V. (2013, February 27). Garnishment of supplemental security income benefits | Office of child support enforcement | Administration for children and families. Retrieved from http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/garnishment-of-supplemental-security-income-benefits
A parent and an author who has survived adverse situations and lived to write about it..