YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – In an about-face, the Pentagon now supports the idea of federal legislation to better protect troops’ child custody rights.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed the move Wednesday during a Defense Department budget hearing with the House Armed Services Committee. He said the Pentagon would begin working with Congress immediately to help craft a bill to ensure servicemembers are not unduly penalized in child custody disputes because of their military service.
In a letter Tuesday to Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, a member of the armed services committee, Gates wrote, “The Defense Department has been officially opposed to federal legislation on this matter. However, I have been giving this matter a lot of thought and we should change our position.” Turner has sponsored such legislation since 2006 but has been unable to overcome opposition in the Senate.
“You should know that this view is not widely shared within the legal community,” Gates wrote, “but I am convinced that the benefits outweigh the concerns.”
Turner said the Gates’ endorsement would eliminate much of the Senate’s resistance to the idea behind his failed Service Members Family Protection Act.
It sought to prohibit family court judges from using deployments against troops when determining custody and prevent permanent changes to custody orders while troops are deployed.
Turner said he aims to preserve those pillars of his original legislation while working out the details of a new bill with Pentagon officials.
Turner said he hopes a new bill can reach a vote in Congress within the next few months.
“Our men and women in uniform should not have to worry about losing their children while they defend us overseas,” Turner said Wednesday.
Because most family court proceeding are not public, tracking how many divorced troops have been denied custody of their children based on their deployments is impossible.
However, the media continues to report on such cases; in the fall Oprah Winfrey interviewed on her show several female servicemembers involved in custody battles related to their military service.
The growing media attention likely helped influence Gates’ decision to support a national standard of protection for servicemembers in child custody cases against the advice of his Pentagon advisors, Turner said.
Before the change in stance, the Pentagon had been working to help pass individual state laws with the objectives similar to Turner’s proposed legislation through the Defense State Liaison Office. To date, 13 states have few or no state laws safeguarding troops’ custody rights, 21 have some laws on the book and 16 have met the DOD’s desired level of protections — a standard based on a points system for different measures such as not holding a deployment against a parent when determining custody.
Col. John Odom, who tracks child custody issues at the Pentagon, told Stars and Stripes in May that federal legislation would only complicate family law, which is typically decided and enforced in state courts, where few matters are simple.
But Turner contends a federal law is necessary because of the differences in state laws and the mobile military lifestyle. When a servicemember is an official resident of one state, gets divorced in another and then enters custody proceedings after having moved to yet another state or even out of the country, determining jurisdiction can be difficult.
A federal custody protection for troops would create a baseline of protection in U.S. courts, no matter where they were assigned, Turner said.
Gates change of heart “is incredible news because we now have an ally that was previously our biggest force of opposition,” Turner said. “Gates has 1,001 things to do, I’m just glad he did this one.”