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 & 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 & 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 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 & 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 many other states on military parent legislation, and many states have passed bills modeled in part on SB 1082. These include: Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Oklahoma, Utah, Mississippi, Alaska, Missouri, and two dozen others.
Robinson also worked with Congressman Michael Turner’s staff on federal military parent legislation. More progress was made this year with the National Defense Reauthorization Act (HR 2647), which was signed by President Obama last month. The bill mandates that the Secretary of Defense produce a report on child custody litigation involving members of the Armed Forces, as well as international intrafamilial abductions of servicemembers” children.
Fathers & Families is now working to ensure that the bill’s impact isn’t watered down. The Secretary of Defense will submit its report to the Armed Services Committees of the Senate and the House of Representatives by the end of March. Fathers & Families is collecting military parents’ custody stories and will submit them to the Secretary of Defense–to submit your military parent custody story for inclusion, please fill out our form here.
Robinson also worked with Congressman Michael Turner’s staff on federal legislation to protect service members’ custody rights by setting universal federal standards state family courts must follow.
Lt. Col. Vanessa Benson is a part of these efforts and is currently in a highly-publicized custody battle after she lost custody of her son following her deployment to Afghanistan. Benson was featured by CBS in its recent piece Military Parents Fight for Custody at Home. According to CBS:
After returning home from Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Vanessa Benson is in what she calls, the fight of her life…
She and her ex-husband are battling over custody of their 14-year-old son John. Benson, in accordance with her mandated family action plan, temporarily gave the ex-husband custody before she was deployed last December with the understanding John would return home once she did. That didn’t happen.
“I had gotten an e-mail from my son’s father that says, ‘You need to get a lawyer. I’m not sending your son back to you,'” Benson told Miller.
Benson, who serves in the 101st Airborne Division, said she hasn’t seen her son in about two months and hasn’t lived with him in a year.
The ex-husband did not want to talk to CBS News but has argued in court documents that it’s in their son’s best interest to stay with him in Florida for stability. But after seven months and $12,000 in legal bills, Benson said she doesn’t think it is fair that she has to fight to win back a son she left behind to serve her country.
“I feel that I’m being put in the same category as an unfit mother,” Benson told Miller…
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, has proposed a bill he says would protect service members’ custody rights by setting universal federal standards state family courts must follow…
“It is unbelievable the number of family court judges who will willingly use a service member’s time away in serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan to take custody away from them,” Turner told Miller.
The Department of Defense has successfully fought the bill since its introduction in 2007, arguing that states are better equipped to handle custody issues…
“We’re asked to drop everything to go to combat,” Turner told Miller. “Is it too much to ask that we have protection for when we come back to get our children back?”
Benson told Florida Today:
I”m supposed to have my child back, yet all the judge”s orders have gone unheeded and have gone unenforced by (the judge). How much more money do I have to spend to get an order (the father is) not going to abide by?’ Now remarried to another Army lieutenant colonel, Benson, 39, said she raised John as a single parent for years and allowed her ex-husband liberal visitation.
The case isn’t black and white–John does have a legitimate reason to want to stay in Florida, since his father is no longer in the military and can probably allow John to finish his last 3 1/2 years of high school without being moved again. While Vanessa has no more deployment orders, that could change in the future. However, Vanessa told Fathers & Families that her concern isn’t simply that the boy may continue to live in Florida, but also that she feels she is being driven out of John’s life.
According to Vanessa, her ex-husband isn’t allowing John to come visit her for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other breaks–the normal visitation that a noncustodial parent would have. She also says that the boy’s father is misinforming the boy that he can’t legally visit the mom when that clearly isn’t the case. She says that the father didn’t put her name on the boy’s school forms and generally relegates her to little or no role in the boy’s life.
Vanessa says that during the years she had custody of John, she did everything she could to encourage shared parenting, giving her ex liberal visitation, purchasing the boy plane tickets, etc. She says that she received $200 a month in child support while she had primary custody, but that John’s father now is seeking a stiff $1,500 a month from her.
Regardless of where John ends up, military parents shouldn’t forfeit their custody arrangements and role in their children’s lives simply because they’re serving their country.