Thursday, October 8, 2009

America’s men and women in uniform place themselves in harm’s way every day without regard for their own safety. They fight for their country and for their families. Given their measure of dedication to our defense, it’s unacceptable that these same soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, guard members and reservists would be forced to forfeit their right of child-custody protections just because they are deployed for months or years far from home. The lack of parental custody rights for active-duty military parents remains a stark omission from federal protections granted to our service members.

Unfortunately, the absence of child-custody protections for our military parents is not by accident. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates remains opposed to federal child-custody protections simply because the Pentagon views such protections as “a matter of state law concern.” Rather than working to implement a federal protection that would not infringe upon state law, which I am currently advocating in Congress, the secretary is blocking any such effort, opting to pursue a lengthy and unlikely course of urging each state to change its own laws. Mr. Gates refuses to meet with me to discuss this.

Ironically, the House-passed fiscal year 2010 National Defense Authorization Act includes language expanding military-personnel protections in terminating cable-TV, Internet and telephone-service contracts without penalty. The Pentagon has no problem with federal protections making sure a soldier isn’t treated unfairly by his cell-phone company, but guaranteeing his or her right to retain the custody of a child while deployed is not a priority. It’s a disservice to our military personnel to think their leadership does not value their commitment enough to provide needed federal child-custody protection while on active duty.

The faces of our fighting force are a reflection of our diverse society. Military mothers and fathers spend grueling and lonely tours of duty that test and stretch family bonds. But in too many instances, our active-duty military kiss their children goodbye, only to return from deployment to learn that they’ve lost their child-custody protections. This is of no comfort to a mother or father deployed to Iraq who cannot focus on their mission for constant worry that the children for whom they are sacrificing their lives may not be there when they come home.

Without a federal law protecting a military parent’s child-custody agreements while on active duty, these soldier parents are finding their service obligation is actually working against them. Unfortunately, in some cases judges are using a parents’ time on deployment as a reason to deny child custody. One such case involved Kentucky National Guard Lt. Eva Slusher, who was called to active duty in support of the war on terror. When she returned from deployment nearly 1 1/2 years later, a judge ruled she would lose custody of her daughter because of her absence. “Soldiers are protected under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or so I thought; an employer has to give me my job back after I return from a deployment, but they don’t have to give me my child back?” Lt. Slusher asked.

Military personnel face many challenges. In addition to the obvious physical stress of extended deployments and the possible personal risk associated with combat, there are complications stemming from one’s legal obligations to society that cannot be ignored, even on the front lines half a world away. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides a measure of protection for active-duty military, temporarily shielding them from legal penalties resulting from their absence while on deployment. The act covers court proceedings, evictions, foreclosures, credit status, auto leases, insurance and taxes, but not military parents’ custody rights.

Rather than having federal legal protection while on active duty, military parents face a patchwork of different custody laws in each state, with many states providing no protections. As one parent seeks to alter custody agreements while the other parent is deployed, this often results in a change in child custody rights due to the military parent’s service obligation. Penalizing a service member for their performance of duty is unfair and a dishonor to our military parents who freely give so much to this nation.

This year, with the help of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, I have offered language in the House-passed fiscal year 2010 National Defense Authorization Act that would prevent courts from permanently altering an existing custody agreement while a military parent is deployed. Upon the return of the service member from deployment, any temporary change in custody would be immediately reversed, unless the reinstatement of custody is not in the best interest of the child. The amendment would prohibit courts from considering the military parent’s past deployment or possible deployment as a basis for determining the best interests of the child in custody court cases. This legislation would not shift custody authority to federal courts, but rather it would ensure that active-duty parents’ rights are protected.

Every member of the House Armed Services Committee has expressed support for extending temporary custody rights to our deployed servicemen and women. However, the Senate-passed version of the fiscal 2010 defense bill falls short of calling for deployed-military-parent custody protections; it only orders a study of the problem. As the House and Senate conference on the fiscal 2010 Defense Authorization Act, it is hoped that the House language can be adopted in the conference report.

No parent, courageous and honorable enough to volunteer to serve in the U.S. military, should have their time spent overseas in defense of our nation used against them in child-custody disputes. It’s time to finally afford the protectors of our freedom equal protections under the law.

Rep. Michael R. Turner, Ohio Republican, is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee.

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