Defense Secretary Robert Gates has reversed the Pentagon’s course and now supports legislation that would prevent service members from losing custody of their children solely because of deployment, reversing the department’s position on the issue.
The previous official Defense Department stance had opposed federal legislation. But in a Tuesday letter to Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, Gates said he had been giving the matter “a lot of thought,” and now supports legislation that provides service members with a federal standard of protection in cases where it is established that military service is the sole factor involved in a child custody decision involving a service member.
A recent Defense Department study in which officials evaluated known cases regarding the issue, they found no instances of service members losing custody solely because of their military service. But anecdotal reports in recent years indicate that some troops believe child custody decisions go against them in large part because of the demands of service, such as the wartime need to frequently deploy for extended periods.
Defense officials have been working with states to address the unique aspects of military service, and 38 states have enacted laws that address some aspects of the difficulties facing parents who must temporarily give up custody of their children or must forgo visitation.
The Pentagon position has been that the welfare of the child is the primary concern, and state courts are in the best position to decide the issue. But the department has also worked with states to ensure that absence due to military service should never be the sole basis for a loss of custody or diminished visitation rights.
Gates said his new position “is not widely shared within the legal community, but I am convinced that the benefits outweigh the concerns.”