Military child custody bill: good or bad for service members?

For seven years, one U.S. representative has tried to pass the Servicemember Family Protection Act. The bill mandates that the deployment of a parent must not be a consideration in child custody cases here in Spokane and throughout the country. What could possibly be the problem with a federal law protecting the child custody rights of deployed soldiers?

The bill passed in the U.S. House this term as part of the defense reauthorization bill and also as a stand-alone bill. Experts say that it is almost certain not to pass in the Senate.

The American Bar Association, the National Military Family Association and many other advocates are firmly against this bill. They maintain that the bill imposes federal court review of family court cases involving military personnel.

State courts generally have jurisdiction over family court matters and opponents contend that the bill, if passed into law, would put military custody disputes in front of federal judges who are not experienced in family law issues. Having to fight custody cases in both federal and state courts would also make these cases more expensive.

The most significant point of contention revolves around the interests that the bill seeks to protect. Opponents are concerned that the bill, in protecting the interests of the deployed service member, would force judges to weigh the interests of the adult against the interests of the child.

Judges in Washington state’s family courts are charged with always holding the best interests of the child as the highest priority in resolving child custody disputes.

Opponents of the bill recognize that the seven-year battle over this bill has encouraged states to make child custody policies involving deployed military personnel more clear. The Department of Defense has also made policy adjustments to address potential custody concerns by creating a standard Family Care Plan that all soldiers with children prepare before deployment.

Still, many say there is little evidence of a real disadvantage suffered by deployed military members in custody battles. The Department of Defense, at the request of the Senate, issued the results of a study two years ago where they found no incidents that suggested military service resulted in loss of child custody.

Supporters of the bill maintain that under current laws, military service members are at a disadvantage when it comes to child custody and this must be remedied.

Source: The Herald, “Military child custody bill has its detractors,” Tom Philpott, June 11, 2012