Bill would create support network for servicemembers in overseas custody battles
Stars and Stripes August 4, 2009
The U.S. military would be required to establish an official support network for servicemembers whose children have been abducted overseas under an amendment added to the 2010 defense authorization bill last month.
Introduced by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the measure requires the Defense Department to establish a database to track cases and a system of uniform legal advice for troops regarding divorces from foreign nationals.
“They feel all alone. They’re not at home, and their network is the military. There needs to be a robust effort to help them,” Smith said. “From the top right on down the whole chain of command, they need to be advising these servicemembers. Sometimes they’re getting bad advice.”
The full bill must still go through a conference committee and be reapproved by the House and Senate before the amendment will become law.
Navy Cmdr. Paul Toland, who has been fighting for more than six years for custody rights to his daughter in Japan, said he initially received poor legal advice from a military attorney.
Shortly after his Japanese-American wife moved out with their daughter, a military attorney at Yokosuka Naval Base, where he was stationed, advised him to pursue the case in Japanese court. The move resulted in a U.S. court later refusing to hear his custody case, citing Japanese jurisdiction.
“That advice doomed me in the end,” Toland said. “That lack of knowledge really hurt me.”
Though Japan does not recognize foreign custody orders, not having one has further complicated his efforts to see his daughter.
The State Department, which tracks and assists in cases of parental child abduction overseas, is working to improve its relationship with the military to provide better advice and assistance for troops.
Although the State Department does not track which cases involve servicemembers, many of the 50 open cases in Japan involve active-duty troops or former servicemembers who met their spouses while stationed in the country, said Michelle Bond, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services at the State Department in Washington.