The House Armed Services Committee this week included in its FY2011 National Defense Authorization Act language criticizing a Department of Defense report on child custody litigation involving military servicemembers, and called for legislation to protect the rights of servicemembers in child custody disputes. Rep. Mike Turner has written Secretary Gates highlighting this language and thanking the Secretary for his ongoing commitment to taking a "fresh look" at the need for such legislation.
In the report language of the NDAA, the Committee was critical of the draft DoD report, "Report on Child Custody Litigation Involving Service of Members of the Armed Forces", which was mandated through Section 572 of the FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act. Specifically, the Committee concluded, “there is not sufficient data available to ascertain the full scope of how many members of the Armed Forces experience the loss of child custody as a result of their service."
In his letter to Secretary Gates, Rep. Turner stated, "I appreciate your commitment to taking a fresh look at this issue, and understand that the DoD report, when released, was done so without your endorsement. It is my hope that as we move through the NDAA process this year, the DoD works with my office on language that protects servicemembers who are facing child custody battles."
The Committee further stated it continues to support the need for Congressional legislation to provide maximum protection for our service members and their children, who, while deployed, remain at risk of having that deployment used against them to determine or change child custody arrangements. As a result of the Committee’s commitment to Congressional legislation to provide a federal, baseline standard to assist men and women serving in our federal military, HR 4469, authored by Rep. Turner, was included in the Chairman’s Mark of the FY2011 National Defense Authorization Act for a fourth consecutive year.
The committee-approved language prohibits courts from permanently altering custody orders during a parent’s deployment and requires pre-deployment custody to be reinstated unless that is not in the best interest of the child. Additionally, the language prohibits state court judges from using deployment or possibility of deployment as a factor in determining the best interests of the child.
State laws differ on the question of whether deployment or the potential for deployment can be used as a criterion to determine child custody. Many states have no laws at all. Rep. Turner has argued for a uniform standard. “Without this legislation, there is a danger a member of the military may return from deployment to find his or her child custody agreement has been permanently altered. This is not only a grave injustice to our troops, but it puts unnecessary stress on families that are already coping with the ordeal of overseas deployment,” Rep. Turner said.
The NDAA is expected to be voted on by the full House of Representatives this week. In the past, similar language approved by the full House has been removed by the Senate in Conference Committee.
Congressman Turner has worked on a bi-partisan basis with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) to win support for the legislation. On April 29th, Rep. Turner and Rep. Herseth Sandlin met with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to advocate for federal safeguards of military parents’ rights in custody cases. In that meeting, Secretary Gates acknowledged the problem posed by use of deployment as a criterion in deciding child custody cases, and committed to “take a fresh look” at protecting the rights of our servicemen and women in child custody disputes. More information on Rep. Turner and Rep. Herseth Sandlin’s meeting with Secretary Gates can be found here.