Did you know that the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protects deployed military personnel from being evicted or losing property from creditors but does not protect them from losing custody of children whom they were awarded during a divorce?
A recent Associated Press story examined the grief of military personnel who have dealt with the experience of losing their children firsthand after being deployed. Just one of those cases involved Iowa Guardsman Mike Grantham, who reported for duty in 2002. Before his deployment, Grantham arranged for his mother to take care of his children, whom he had raised since his divorce from his wife Tammara in 2000.
While deployed, Grantham was stunned to learn that his ex-wife had filed for custody of the couple's children. Grantham actually learned of this stunning news from a custody petition delivered to his unit's armory. Grantham's Iowa divorce lawyer twice tried to request a hold on this petition under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which provides a delay of civil court actions and administrative proceedings for a minimum of 90 days for active military personnel.
Despite these pleas for a stay, the story detailed how a trial judge proceeded with the child custody hearings and temporarily granted custody to Tammara. When Grantham returned to Iowa a year later, he was dealt another blow as the judge made Tammara the children's primary physical custodian. While an appeals court ruled on his behalf, Grantham officially lost custody of his children when the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in favor of his ex-wife.
Grantham said in the story how he now has visitation rights with his children that are very similar to what his wife had prior to his deployment. He also expressed his displeasure with the whole process.
With the Grantham case in mind, the story detailed how judges have most often put the best interests of the child before anything else when coming to determinations in these cases in which an ex-spouse has sought custody following deployment. Factors like stability for the child and who has been his or her primary emotional provider have often played huge roles in these determinations and ultimately created an obvious disadvantage for military personnel who are activated and deployed.
While military and family law experts have not been able to put specific figures to the number of cases in which deployed military personnel have lost custody of their children, the story provided some interesting statistics on military divorce rates. Considering that military divorces have been on the rise during the last couple of the years and the fact that there are more than 140,000 single parents in the military, the story indicated of much of a bigger problem this issue could become.
Advocates on behalf of military personnel have said that losing custody because of deployment is a violation of their civil rights. They are thus urging for the federal law to be changed and protect military personnel from permanently losing custody because of their duty.
Instead of waiting for a change to the federal law, some states have already begun to take action in protecting the civil rights of deployed military personnel. In 2005, a California law took effect and stated that permanent changes in child custody or visitation can not be justified by a parent's absence because of military obligations. The story detailed that Michigan and Kentucky followed with similar laws requiring temporary child custody changes to return to the original agreement at the end of deployment.
The story added that legislators in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas have proposed similar child custody laws for military personnel.