When Lt. Eva Crouch was mobilized with the Kentucky National Guard, she had to leave behind her daughter Sara, 6 years after a divorce in which she was awarded primary custody. Sara went to live with her father. Fortunately, she was not deployed to Iraq, but ended up at Fort Knox and was able to visit with Sara most weekends. Eighteen months later, her assignment finished, Crouch called her ex-husband’s home to say that she’d pick Sara up the next day. His response stunned her: “Not without a court order you won’t.”
Thus began an extended court battle. First the trial court in Kentucky ruled in favor of Crouch’s ex-husband, deciding that it was in Sara’s best interests to stay with him. Appeals to higher courts followed. It took two years and about $25,000 before a Kentucky appellate ruled that Lt. Crouch should have custody. In doing so, the court relied, in part, upon a new statute in Kentucky, one that Crouch had fought to get enacted.
Experts in military law and family law don't know exactly how many servicemembers are potentially affected. They do know that 5.4% of active duty members — more than 74,000 — are single parents, according to Department of Defense reports. More than 68,000 Guard and reserve members are also single parents.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a federal law, is supposed to protect military personnel from civil litigation while they are serving their country. But all over this country, custody battles similar to Lt. Crouch’s are being played out in courtrooms.
Some claim that the solution lies in amending the federal law so that custody cases are specifically covered, and also to protect the servicemember by keeping jurisdiction in the state where the child resided before a soldier deployed.
Kentucky isn’t the only state that pursued protection for servicemembers. See Kentucky statute KRS 403.340. California enacted legislation in 2005 saying a parent's absence due to military activation cannot be used to justify permanent changes in custody or visitation. Cal. Family Code Section 3047. Michigan enacted a similar law in 2006. See excerpt MCL 722.27(1)(c). Other states—Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and North Carolina—have similar pending legislation.
See a news story detailing legal difficulties faced by returning military parents: May 5, 2007--Deployed troops battle for custody of children. Associated Press
For information about divorce, child custody, and military families, see Jeanne Hannah's website.
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