Your Money or Your Life: Indian Parents and Child Support Modifications

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In 2013, Jolene Sharp was miserably unhappy. Her marriage was over, she hated her job and she was abusing alcohol. Recognizing this lifestyle was unsustainable, Jolene decided to make a change. She quit her job, moved back home to her native village of Stebbins, in rural Alaska, and began practicing a traditional, subsistence lifestyle. This move was good for Jolene, and good for her tribe; the question however, was whether it was good for her daughter. According to The Alaska Supreme Court, it was not. The problem for the court was child support. When Jolene’s marriage ended, her husband was given primary custody of their ten-year-old daughter and Jolene was ordered to pay child support. Jolene’s support award was based on her salary as an oil executive with Alyeska, but when Jolene left her job and adopted a subsistence lifestyle, she could no longer meet her previous child support obligation. Jolene requested a modification, but it was denied. According to the court, the benefits of Jolene’s child support payments outweighed the benefits of returning to her tribe.

The Sharpe court’s decision is not surprising. Courts routinely deny modification requests based on a parent’s voluntary reduction in income. Nevertheless, Sharpe is far from a traditional modification case. Sharpe concerns an Indian family therefore, it should not have been analyzed under traditional family law principles. A common mantra among Indian law scholars is “Indian law is different.” The unique status of tribes, as well as the special federal tribal relationship, means that cases concerning the best interest of Indian tribes, Indian children, and the preservation of Indian culture cannot be assumed to mimic normal family law outcomes. When viewed through an Indian law lens, Sharpe v. Sharpe is not simply about an individual parent’s request for child support modification. Rather, it is about the right of native communities to preserve their traditions and the obligation of the state and federal government to help them. The fact that the Sharpe court failed to recognize this is deeply troubling.