Utah Passes Law Prohibiting Custody Change due to Military Deployment; More States to Follow?

I posted a piece recently about military parents who return from overseas duty only to find that their parental rights have been eroded by their absence. That’s a pretty standard way of looking at child support and custody issues. If one parent has no contact with the children for months or years, judges tend to see that as grounds to limit his/her rights. States tend to have custody laws that “award” custody to the parent with the greater day-to-day hands-on care of the child. So judges don’t seem to much care whether a parent is deployed to Iraq in the United States Army or Reserves, he/she’s just an absent parent.

But apparently there’s a good bit of sentiment that parents shouldn’t be penalized for serving their country. This article is a lot more informative than the one in the New York Times that I wrote about earlier (Stars and Stripes, 9/6/09). It details the efforts to make changes at the federal level which at first were opposed by the Department of Defense. The DoD wanted states to decide. But patient lobbying by Congressmen has possibly convinced Defense Secretary Robert Gates that federal law should prohibit changes in custody arrangements for U.S. military personnel while they’re deployed overseas.

That hasn’t happened yet, but in the meantime the State of Utah has in fact passed such a law. Read about it here (Deseret News, 9/4/09).

As I said before, this type of legislation, whether it occurs at the state or federal level, could serve as the thin edge of a wedge that opens up courts to fathers’ parental rights. The reasoning behind laws preventing deprivation of rights while serving abroad is correct – parents shouldn’t be deprived of children and children shouldn’t be deprived of parents just because they served in a foreign land. Children want and need their parents and even the lengthy absences necessitated by military service shouldn’t be used to separate them.

And what’s true of military service is true of any kind of work. Should children lose their father because he’s away on business or has to take a temporary job away from home? If children whose parents are employed by a branch of the military shouldn’t, then why should children whose parents are employed by IBM or ExxonMobil?

The reasoning is obvious. Child custody arrangements shouldn’t be about punishing parents for the work they do; they should be about maximizing parent-child contact.

Laws prohibiting diminution of parental rights for military service can only lead to greater parental rights for fathers generally. And that can’t be a bad thing.

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