Using Military Service In Child Custody Battles

December 30, 2008

I’ve written about this subject before, but once again it’s in the headlines and it makes me sick. It pisses me off. Once again, an ex-spouse of a Soldier is using her military service and deployments that are a required part of their service to our country, as an argument as to why she should lose custody of her child. Her ex-husband even went so far as to claim that she’s unstable because of her military required trainings and deployments.

In early 2007, Army Sgt. Stephanie Greer was serving in Ramadi as part of a vehicle maintenance unit that was deployed as a part of the surge. While in Ramadi, she learned that her ex-husband was going to fight for custody of their daughter, whom he was caring for while Sgt Greer was deployed. Because of that, during her 15 month deployment, she was fighting two battles. One in Iraq and one over a distance of about 4,000 miles, in an attempt to keep custody of her daughter.

“If I had not deployed, I know I never would have faced this situation,” said Greer, 39. “I don’t think it should be held against you, and I don’t think my time away, or me deploying, affects my ability to be a mother or provide for my kids.”1

When she contacted her chain of command about the issue and asked for advice, she was a bit surprised at the callous answer she was given. ‘Deal with it.’ I’m sure that Sgt. Greer isn’t the only person who’s heard the same thing in similar situations. In the midst of war, while the Soldier can request emergency leave, it’s left to the discretion of the unit commander, to determine if they’re going to approve that emergency leave request. Often they won’t consider a custody battle an emergency situation.

“More and more, a service member is deployed and the service member’s spouse is seeking to use that to their advantage,” said Greg Rinckey, a former Army judge advocate.

“We are seeing a substantial increase in cases . . . challenging the custody of military parents and the return of custody when they come back from mobilization or deployment, compared to virtually none 10 years ago,” said Mark E. Sullivan, a retired Army Reserve judge advocate who practices family law in North Carolina. The increase has been greatest in states with large military populations, such as Virginia and Texas, he added.2

Female Troops are more likely to experience these problems, as for the most part, when a couple divorces, the children remain with the mother. Unfortunately, the military often loses in these situations as well, as many who might have made the military their career, will opt to give up their careers in the military to keep custody of their children. It can really tear at the service member, when they have to make the choice between their career and service to our country and giving up that career to maintain custody of their children.

The Pentagon supports provisions safeguarding the rights of deployed parents in the event of custody disputes. Recognizing that this has become a problem, President Bush signed a measure into law last January. According to Army spokesman Lt. Col. George Wright, emergency leave most generally is used when there is a death in the family. He did relate however, that there are provisions in the regulation that allow emergency leave in events of marital problems as well. According to Wright, they have the power to request a delay of at least 90 days in the event of a custody proceedings. More than 20 states have passed legislation over the past two years to limit the impact of deployments on custody decisions.

“More states are recognizing the need for statutes which protect the rights of service members and their children,” said Sullivan, who helped write North Carolina’s statute.3

While the laws in each of the states may vary, several have clear provisions preventing deployment from being used as a factor in determining custody issues. Virginia has went even farther by barring any change in custody whatsoever, while a parent is deployed.

Hopefully more states will adopt legislation that strictly prohibits a parent from using the deployment of the other parent, as a means for gaining custody of their children. Sgt. Greer isn’t the only one fighting such a battle. Spc. Jonathan Moldano is currently fighting a battle of his own, to regain custody of his children. When he deployed, he gave guardianship of his children to his mother and also a military power of attorney. Officials in New York didn’t recognize the military power of attorney and placed his son and daughter in foster care. He is currently deployed and attempting to fight to regain custody of his children from Mosul.

“I can’t contact my kids, I can’t speak with them, and it’s hard ’cause they’re with a foster mother, when they could have been with my family,” Maldonado wrote in an e-mail from Mosul, where he is with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.

“No one ever wants to help me out in this situation, no one wants to tell me anything, I’m left in the dark pretty much,” he wrote. He plans to return stateside in January and says he will file again for custody.4

For Sgt. Greer, her ordeal has finally come to an end. She returned from her deployment in the spring and the custody hearing was in June. After the hearing, the Judge took 7 days to make his decision. For Greer, those 7 days must have seemed like a lifetime. Finally she received a phone call from her attorney letting her know that she would retain custody of her daughter and her ex-husband would be allowed regular visitation.

I implore our readers to get involved and contact the politicians in their states. Let them know how you feel about this and encourage them to make sure that there are protections for our military parents. Protections that allow them to retain custody of their children. This is not a battle that our Troops should have to be worrying about while they’re deployed in combat zones. Not only do they cause distractions for the Soldier but these types of issues can put the Soldier and their fellow Soldiers at risk, because of those distractions. Something definitely needs to be done to keep these situations from happening. Something needs to be done to protect the rights of our military members and ultimately the rights of their children.

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3 Responses to “Using Military Service In Child Custody Battles”

  1. Jane on January 4th, 2009 9:26 pm

    I am a retired family law paralegal and I worked for the premier divorce attorney who specializes in military divorce. Please find out about your rights. Check out this link. This attorney teaches attorneys all around the US about this exact situation.
    Divorcing the Military. How to Attack and How to Defend…paste this into your google browser with the name Marshal Willck, esq.
    Good luck.

  2. Anna on March 18th, 2009 9:12 am

    I’m currently about to be in this same situation. I’m leave next month and was just informed by my ex that once he returns in December he is going to not only take my daughter from her grandmother while I’m gone but take me to court for custody as well. We are both active duty. I will be back about 4 months after he returns and I fear that the courts will do the same to me that they have done to everyone else. My children are my life and now I’m might be forced with either having my career that helps take care of them or leaving it just so I can keep this from happening.

  3. tekena on March 29th, 2009 2:39 pm

    I have experienced the same prejudice in court. As a matter of fact me and my son farther was never married and a paternity test was never established. I went to court four times in two years, burned all of my leave days and spent all of my savings trying to get custody of my son. It went from six months joint custody to loosing total custody to shared legal custody with me getting visitation. The guardian ad litem stood in court and told the judge that my son farther was getting married just to fluff his situation. To this day he is still not married. My son is with another woman with three kids under the age of 10, while his dad is working until seven p.m. during the week and I am five states away. I will be back in Va where he resides in six weeks. Something deffinately needs to be done about this.

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