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. The first success on this issue occurred in 2005 in California 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. We’ve also had some success with federal legislation on this issue–to learn more, click here.
Lt. Col. Vanessa Benson is a part of these efforts and recently informed us that she had scored a victory in her highly-publicized custody battle. Benson had lost custody of her son following her deployment to Afghanistan, and was featured by CBS in its recent piece Military Parents Fight for Custody at Home. Originally CBS reported:
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.
As we noted a couple weeks ago, the case isn’t black and white, since John may legitimately want to stay in Florida to finish his last 3 1/2 years of high school. Regardless, military parents shouldn’t forfeit their custody arrangements and role in their children’s lives simply because they’re serving their country.
Last week Benson won her case, and it was partly because of the work Fathers & Families is doing. As this CBS News update explains, Benson was awarded temporary custody of her son in a hearing last week–the photo above was taken right after the judge announced her decision.
HB 435, the Florida law that has helped military parents, including Benson, was signed into law in July of 2007. Father & Families’ Robinson worked extensively with Florida House Member Gayle Harrel, the bill’s sponsor, as well as her legislative assistant Luke Rossknecht. Servicemember Molly Moriarty, who was involved in a custody battle while she was deployed overseas, and her husband Tim were also instrumental in the introduction of the Florida bill.
The Florida statute makes it clear that if a court has issued a temporary child custody order as a result of a parent being deployed, once the deployed parent has returned the previous orders that were in effect prior to deployment must be reinstated. Section 61.13002 (2) of the Florida Statute reads:
(2) If a temporary order is issued under this section, the court shall reinstate the custody judgment or order previously in effect upon the parent’s return from active military service, deployment, or temporary assignment.
Countless military parents have had their role in their children’s lives safeguarded by the legislation we’ve helped pass. Those who serve deserve nothing less.