For the third year in a row, I have included legislative language in the annual defense budget to strengthen child custody protections so mothers and fathers in uniform will not be forced to lose custody of their children due to their military service. And this week, Lt. Eva Slusher, a service member who lost custody of her daughter due to her military deployment, is visiting lawmakers on Capitol Hill to raise awareness about this dilemma affecting too many military parents.
For America’s men and women in uniform, military service requires personal sacrifice, often including deployments for much of the year to distant lands or at sea. Many military parents don’t expect to find themselves having to fight to keep custody of their children while also fighting for their country. Regrettably, in many state courts a military parent’s commitment to protect the homeland is being used against them in child custody cases.
Due to different custody laws in each state, a military parent can find themselves disadvantaged as one parent seeks to alter custody agreements while the other parent is on military duty. This may result in a change in child custody rights due to the military parent’s service obligation.
This issue first came to my attention after Kentucky National Guard member Lt. Eva Slusher, who was deployed to serve her country, subsequently lost custody of her daughter, Sara. After a two-year, $25,000 court battle, Lt. Slusher was ultimately successful in regaining custody of her daughter but at a great cost.
While military personnel have been previously granted protection in custody actions back home, the law does not go far enough to preserve their rights. Unfortunately, there have been cases where judges have ruled against service members because of their deployment or possibility of deployment. As Lt. Slusher put it, “Soldiers are protected under the Servicemember’s 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?”
On four occasions since 2007 the U.S. House has passed provisions I’ve authored to add custody protections for military parents. Regrettably, the Department of Defense continues to oppose my efforts.
This year, with the help of House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., I have offered language in the 2010 Defense Authorization Act that would preclude courts from permanently altering an existing custody agreement while a military parent is deployed.
Furthermore, 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. And, finally, the amendment would not allow courts to consider a military parent’s deployment or possible deployment as a basis for determining the best interests of the child in custody court cases.
There is strong support for protecting military parents’ custody rights in the House. On June 16, 2009, all the members of the House Armed Services Committee, except the chairman, who fully supports these efforts, signed a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling on the Pentagon to finally address military parent custody rights.
The greatest asset in America’s defense arsenal is our military personnel and their success in defending our nation is directly linked to our commitment to safeguarding their lives and valuing the sacrifices they make to wear our country’s uniform. 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.