Because of problems in the family court system, when a divorced or never-married military parent deploys overseas, they often face the possibility of losing their custodial arrangement and their relationship with their children. Fathers and Families and its legislative representative Michael Robinson have been at the forefront of this issue, successfully working to pass military parent legislation in dozens of states. In 2003, Fathers and Families publicized the heartbreaking case of Lt. Gary S., a San Diego-based US Navy SEAL who had his child permanently moved from California to the Middle East against his will while he was deployed in Afghanistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks. The first success on this issue occurred in 2005 under Robinson’s leadership with the passage of California SB 1082. SB 1082 addressed the way parents who serve are often taken advantage of in custody and family law matters while they are deployed, and helped resolve the child support nightmare many mobilized reservists face. Fathers and Families organized a campaign in support of the bill, and the Senate Judiciary Committee Analysis of SB 1082 made specific note of your calls and letters. The bill was sponsored by Senators Denise Moreno Ducheny (D-San Diego) and Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside). According to Robinson, Senator Morrow was first inspired to take up this cause after Morrow read my column The Betrayal of the Military Father (Los Angeles Daily News, 5/4/03) about Gary S. Since then Robinson has worked with legislators and staffers in dozens of other states on military parent legislation, and many states have passed bills modeled in part on SB 1082. There are now 36 states which have passed military parent child custody legislation, including Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Virginia, Washington, Michigan, Colorado, and numerous others. Four other states have legislation pending, including Massachusetts and California. To see a chart of the progress on military parent legislation, click here or click on the image above. One major problem faced by servicemembers is that their spouse decides to divorce them after they’ve deployed and then is able to win sole custody. Some military parent bills address this issue by barring courts from issuing permanent child custody orders while the servicemember is deployed. Another common problem is that a servicemember might have joint custody of his or her children before deployment, when the stateside spouse gets a temporary order of sole custody or sole timeshare. When the servicemember returns, he or she is unable to get the courts to revert back to the original child custody arrangement. Some of these military parent bills allow or urge courts to make the custody order revert back to the original order. Some of the legislation bars courts from using deployment as a factor in making child custody determinations or provides for expedited and/or electronic hearings for deployed parents. Our California bill, AB 2416, is one of the strongest in the nation, and F & F’s Robinson is currently working with the Department of Defense in promoting legislation similar to AB 2416 in other states. AB 2416 AB 2416 has passed the California Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committee, and awaits a Senate floor vote before going to Governor Schwarzenegger. (One of our bills, SB 580, a child support reform bill, is on Schwarzenegger’s desk, and three others, including AB 2416, are awaiting final legislative approval, which has been temporarily stalled by California’s budget crisis.) Many parents serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, or other distant locales are anguished that custodial parents have impeded or completely eliminated their contact with their children. When the deployed soldier calls his children at the court-specified time, nobody answers. Letters are written, but they never reach the children. Needless to say, it is extremely difficult for a deployed servicemember to effectively overcome this visitation interference. Given the length and frequency of current deployments, many soldiers lose all contact and sometimes even their relationships with their children, particularly if the children are young. Other servicemembers return from serving to find that while they once had a custody arrangement which allowed them to play a meaningful role in their children”s lives, the new custody arrangement allows them only a marginal role, if any role at all. To regain their previous custody arrangement they must engage in costly, time-consuming litigation, which increases conflict and dissipates much of the time and money that they would otherwise be spending on their children. AB 2416 will address these problems in several ways:
AB 2416 authorizes courts to issue orders granting grandparents, stepparents and extended families the ability to exercise a deployed soldier”s normal parenting time. By encouraging courts to issue such orders, we allow children to preserve their loving bonds with their deployed parents, and also protect the important relationships children share with their grandparents, stepparents, and other extended family. AB 2416 will substantially reduce the current problem of deployed servicemembers being unable to enforce visitation/contact orders. AB 2416 creates a rebuttable presumption that when a military parent is deployed, upon his or her return, child custody and visitation orders will revert to the original order. This protects the crucial role these parents play in their children’s lives, and helps prevent a military parent from having to re-litigate their case.
America was greatly moved by deployed sailor Bill Hawes’ tearful reunion with his little son and little Siri Jordan’s reunion with her divorced father Dan Jordan. Fathers and Families’ legislative work has and will continue to help protect precious relationships like these. Passing is a time-consuming and painstaking labor which usually requires fulltime, professional legislative representation, such as Robinson’s. F & F is creating real, tangible family court reform today, but our deep, professional involvement requires money–contribute to the organization which fights for you by clicking here. Together with you in the love of our children, Glenn Sacks, MA Executive Director, Fathers & Families Ned Holstein, M.D., M.S. Founder, Chairman of the Board, Fathers & Families