By Gerri Elder
Tanya Towne was sent to Iraq for military duty in 2004. While she was serving the country in the war, a battle was being waged against her back at home. Her former husband, Richard S. Diffin Jr., sued her for custody of their son.
After they divorced, Towne and Diffin had shared legal custody of her son, Derrell. Towne had primary physical custody of Derrell and raised him until he was 8 years old.
Derrell is now 12 years old, and Towne is fighting the fight of her life to regain custody of him so that they can pick up where they left off before the Iraq war interrupted their family life.
Towne is remarried, and Derrell lived with her and her husband until her National Guard unit was sent to Iraq. As soon as Diffin got word that Towne was headed to Iraq, he petitioned the court for custody. Towne had wanted Derrell to stay in her home with her husband and his younger sibling. In their home town, Derrell also has extended family. She had not wanted his life to be turned upside down due to her military duty and deployment.
A local family court judge in Canajoharie, New York postponed the custody case because state and federal laws protect soldiers from court actions against them while they are deployed. Judge Philip Cortese did issue a temporary order in the case though, and granted Diffin custody of Derrell. Cortese felt that is was in the best interest of the child that he be with the remaining biological parent, so against Towne's wishes, Derrell was moved to Virginia to live with his dad.
Towne returned from Iraq in October 2005 and petitioned the Family Court to reinstate the original child custody order and have Derrell returned to her. Diffin argued that he wanted the child to remain with him and was awarded primary physical custody.
Shocked and disappointed by the court's decision, Towne appealed the decision. The Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court said in its decision, that while Diffin and Towne were both excellent parents, it was in Derrell's best interests for him to remain in Virginia with his dad. It was decided that it would not be good for Derrell's life to be interrupted by moving again.
Towne says that she will not stop fighting for her son. She intends to start a letter writing campaign to government representatives and anyone and everyone that she thinks might listen and try to help her.
As sad as Towne's heartbreak is, she is not alone. The problem of military parents losing custody due to deployment has become such a big issue that legislation has been proposed in North Carolina to help protect the child custody rights of parents who are deployed for military service.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act protects deployed military personnel from being evicted or having property repossessed, but it falls short in helping military parents retain their custody rights while they are deployed for duty.
Many believe that it is time to re-examine priorities, and Tanya Towne would certainly be one to agree.