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Deadbeats Find Refuge In Casinos Washington State Has No Power To Garnishee Wages Of Tribal Employees

Outraged parents and perplexed social workers say deadbeats have found a haven: tribal gambling casinos.

Wages often are garnisheed when deadbeat parents are behind in child-support payments. But for years, Native-American tribes in Washington state have been free from responding to state orders to garnishee the wages of their employees, even if they aren’t tribal members.

In the past few years, as tribes across the state have opened more casinos and expanded their employee and economic base, the number of complaints from parents accusing the tribes of “harboring deadbeats” has increased.

Ten tribes are operating casinos in the state, with more than 5,000 licensed and certified employees. This number does not include restaurant workers, janitors, clerical or unlicensed bingo workers.

All the casinos have opened within the past six years. Six other tribes have signed gaming compacts with the state and have the option of opening casinos in the future.

Meanwhile, solutions remain elusive because the state has no power to garnishee the wages of the tribes’ employees.

That reality strikes a sour note with Helena Hayes. The 47-year-old Edmonds, Wash., woman said her husband, a dealer at a casino operated by the Colville Confederated Tribes in Chelan, Wash., owes her almost $35,000 in child support.

But when the mother of three spoke with her state Department of Social and Health Services caseworker in Wenatchee a few weeks ago about having her husband’s wages garnisheed, she was told to hire a private attorney.

DSHS employees “have the connections,” Hayes said. “They know what’s going on. I don’t. They are state employees. I pay their salaries. They are there to work for me, not for me to work for them. So why should I have to hire a private attorney?”

The answer is the law.

Though the federal government has some authority over Native-American tribes, the tribes retain all the rights of self-government based on treaties and on rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thus, any federal or state policy dealing with child support has to recognize tribal sovereignty.

The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that position in a 1978 ruling that determined lawsuits against Native-American tribes were barred because of sovereign immunity. One year later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the tribes are immune from actions to garnishee wages.

“So when the state of Washington used to send garnishment notices to the tribes, some tribes responded by saying, ‘You don’t have the authority to garnish the wages and we don’t have to honor the request under federal and state law,”’ said Sarah Colleen Sotomish, a program administrator for DSHS who was hired to address tribal issues.

That doesn’t mean ex-spouses or partners of tribal employees have no options. They can petition tribes, privately or through the state, for child support through tribal courts.

But it is not easy for several reasons: There is no uniform policy on child-support enforcement among the tribes; some tribes won’t consider negotiating the issue with the state; and the cost may prove too expensive for financially strapped former spouses.

To offset this situation, Washington state created the State/Tribal Relations Program in 1990 to promote better communications with the tribes on child-enforcement issues.

Sotomish, who heads the program, said statues that allow for state and federal wages to be garnisheed never addressed how the tribes fit in.

“The tribes were basically ignored,” she said.

Meanwhile, the tribes point out that some of them have made agreements with the state about how to petition for child support through tribal courts. Last year, for example, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the state signed a new Child Support Agreement that allows the state to bring tribal-member and non-member cases into tribal court.

Other tribes are negotiating agreements, while still others have consulted with the State/Tribal Relations Program on more than 400 individual tribal cases.

The results of those agreements and consultations, however, have not been made public.

“Our leaders don’t want people to use our reservations as a way to run away from responsibilities,” said Joe DeLaCruz, a longtime Native-American activist and member of the Quinault Nation. “That’s why our whole thrust was to develop our own ordinances that enabled us to work with the state on child-enforcement policies.”

But, he added, tribal leaders also think child-support enforcement should be based on tribal customs and laws. He noted that the economy on reservations differs from those off reservations and that the amount the state garnishees - up to half of a worker’s net income - might be too high for people whose standard of living generally falls below the national level.

“The tribes have their own structures,” DeLaCruz said, “and I would say they want to resolve this issue with a question of fairness in mind. I just don’t see them making the casinos or reservations havens for people who want to avoid their responsibilities.”

Hayes finds little comfort in that.

“They are making money from people who don’t live on reservations,” she said, “but the state is not allowed to garnishee their workers who live off the reservations? I don’t understand that.