Deployed Troops Battle for Child Custody
Saturday, May 5, 2007; 5:22 PM
-- She had raised her daughter for six years following the divorce, handled the shuttling to soccer practice and cheerleading, made sure schoolwork was done. Hardly a day went by when the two weren't together. Then Lt. Eva Crouch was mobilized with the Kentucky National Guard, and Sara went to stay with Dad.
A year and a half later, her assignment up, Crouch pulled into her driveway with one thing in mind _ bringing home the little girl who shared her smile and blue eyes. She dialed her ex and said she'd be there the next day to pick Sara up, but his response sent her reeling.
"Not without a court order you won't."
Within a month, a judge would decide that Sara should stay with her dad. It was, he said, in "the best interests of the child."
What happened? Crouch was the legal residential caretaker; this was only supposed to be temporary. What had changed? She wasn't a drug addict, or an alcoholic, or an abusive mother.
Her only misstep, it seems, was answering the call to serve her country.
Crouch and an unknown number of others among the 140,000-plus single parents in uniform fight a war on two fronts: For the nation they are sworn to defend, and for the children they are losing because of that duty.
A federal law called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act is meant to protect them by staying civil court actions and administrative proceedings during military activation. They can't be evicted. Creditors can't seize their property. Civilian health benefits, if suspended during deployment, must be reinstated.
And yet service members' children can be _ and are being _ taken from them after they are deployed.
Some family court judges say that determining what's best for a child in a custody case is simply not comparable to deciding civil property disputes and the like; they have ruled that family law trumps the federal law protecting servicemembers. And so, in many cases when a soldier deploys, the ex-spouse seeks custody, and temporary changes become lasting.
Even some supporters of the federal law say it should be changed _ that soldiers should be assured that they can regain custody of children after they return.
"Now, they've got a great argument when Johnny comes marching home that the child should remain where they are, even though it was a temporary order," says Lt. Col. Steve Elliott, a judge advocate with the Oklahoma National Guard, referring to non-deployed parents.