YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The House Armed Services Committee is trying to drum up Pentagon support for a bill that would strengthen servicemembers’ rights in child custody disputes.

The committee has asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to endorse the Servicemember Family Protection Act, which would prevent family court judges from ruling against servicemembers in child custody cases based solely on their past or future deployments.

Military parents can get orders any time to serve anywhere in the world. They are unavoidably susceptible to extended absences from the home, but that alone should not disqualify them from being awarded primary custody of their children, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio.

“This bill does not provide an advantage to servicemembers in a custody case, it just takes away the disadvantage,” Turner told Stars and Stripes last week.

Turner, a member of the armed services committee, first introduced the bill in 2008 to help military moms and dads who risk losing primary custody of their children while deployed.

The bill has passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support each year since but consistently has failed in the Senate, mostly because of past opposition from the Defense Department, which has eschewed Turner’s bill in favor of pursuing similar legislation through state courts.

But Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates, endorsed the Servicemember Family Protection Act last year, signifying an about-face at the Pentagon.

“This view is not widely shared within the (military) legal community,” Gates wrote in a letter to Turner in 2011. “But I am convinced that the benefits outweigh the concerns.”

But Gates’ support came too late in the legislative process to help overcome Senate opposition, Turner said.

“We’re hoping that we can get the Pentagon on board early so we can get assistance from them with making the case to the Senate that this is an issue that needs to be addressed,” Turner said in an interview.

The bill also seeks to extend the definition of a deployment to include humanitarian operations and unaccompanied overseas tours. It will be negotiated as part of the annual defense funding legislative process and has been proposed as an amendment to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a federal law that gives troops special legal privileges in civil court actions while they are deployed.

Congress in 2008 extended the Relief Act to include child custody cases, preventing family courts from permanently changing custody orders while a servicemember is deployed.

But it wasn’t enough, Turner argues. Judges still have the ability to permanently deny military parents full-time custody rights because of their line of work once they get back to the U.S.

Turner said a typical case plays out like this: A servicemember deploys and temporarily loses full-time custody of a child to the other parent. That civilian parent then persuades the judge to make the ruling permanent based on the military parent’s propensity to deploy in the future.

The problem is exacerbated when a servicemember neglects to consult the other parent about a deployment and leaves a child in the care of a step-parent or other family member.

“The non-custodial parent can use that to their advantage in making the military parent look averse to communication,” Turner said. “It would be in a servicemember’s best interest to deal with their child’s other parent prior to a deployment.”

Stories of troops returning from war to fight new battles in family court have been championed by politicians such as Turner and highlighted by media outlets, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” in recent years.

But tracking the cases has proved difficult, even for the Pentagon, which said in a 2010 report that military-related custody disputes are not easily searchable in legal databases.

Despite the lack of statistics, the potential for a military parent to lose custody because of their job should be enough to justify a federal law, said Eva Slusher, who lost custody of her daughter in 2004 when she deployed. It took her two years and $25,000 to rectify the situation after a judge ruled that Slusher’s military service made her husband a more suitable parent.

She agrees with Turner that deploying troops need to keep their exes in the loop when it comes to temporary custody arrangements for deployments, even though it didn’t help her case.

“You’re not looking out for the child’s best interest if you’re not talking to the biological parent,” Slusher said.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now