Following a meeting at the Pentagon today with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, U.S. Representatives Michael R. Turner and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) expressed appreciation for the Secretary’s acknowledgement of the problem posed by use of deployment as a criterion in deciding child custody cases, as well as for his commitment to “take a fresh look” at protecting the rights of our servicemen and women in child custody disputes.
Reps. Turner and Herseth Sandlin have called on the Pentagon to support federal safeguards of military parents’ rights in custody cases. Currently, military parents have no guarantee that their child custody agreements will be preserved while they are called away on deployment. In some states, military parents have lost custody of their children due to their military service or even the possibility of their deployment. Previously, Secretary Gates had expressed the desire to allow states to individually determine their own custody protections.
Citing the current array of state laws that provide inconsistent levels of protection for service members who must fight to retain custody of their children upon return from deployment, Reps. Turner and Herseth Sandlin noted the need for a national, baseline standard which protects service members and allays their unrest about future deployment being used as a criterion in deciding child custody cases.
“We would like to work with the Department on a solution to this matter that will protect our men and women in uniform, as well as their families,” Reps. Turner and Herseth Sandlin stated in a letter to the Secretary following the meeting.
For the last three years, Rep. Turner has successfully offered an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) providing military parents basic child custody protection while on active duty, yet each time the amendment has been opposed by the Pentagon; his legislation was approved unanimously by the House of Representatives as a stand-alone bill in 2008. In February, the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, which Rep. Herseth Sandlin chairs, held a hearing on the issue.
Noting that April is the Month of the Military Child, Rep. Turner said, “Until now, the Department of Defense has refused to acknowledge the problem and has seemed essentially uninterested in the parental rights of the men and women who serve our country on the front lines of battle. Providing a consistent standard would be good for our servicemembers and good for their children. I look forward to continuing to work with Rep. Herseth Sandlin to replace this patchwork of laws with one consistent standard on which our military families can rely.”
“I appreciated Secretary Gates’ willingness to meet with us and discuss the importance of protecting the rights of our servicemembers,” Rep. Herseth Sandlin said. “In the House Veterans’ Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee, which I chair, we have worked to improve the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act to improve and protect the rights of servicemembers when it comes to issues such as employment and home loans affected by deployments, and I think the protection of child custody arrangements deserves equal consideration.”
According to the Defense Department, some states currently afford some level of custody protections for servicemembers, but their approaches vary widely, and other states offer no such protections for military personnel at all. Such disparities underscore the need to enact a baseline of federal protections for servicemembers.
Rep. Turner’s child custody protection amendment was included in the House-passed FY10 NDAA, but the Senate companion bill did not contain custody protection language, and the House language was deleted in conference.