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Gates to support federal legislation protecting troops' custody rights

A military lifestyle can complicate the already often complicated matter of child custody battles. One of the barriers service members often face in seeking custody of their children is that their career can be used against them.

At a recent Defense Department budget hearing with the Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates confirmed that the Pentagon would begin working with Congress to draw up a bill which would ensure that troops' child custody rights are not put in jeopardy because of their military service.

Ohio Representative Michael Turner of the Armed Services Committee has sponsored federal legislation to protect the custody rights of service members since 2006, but has experience obstacles in the Senate. In a recent letter to Turner, Gates said that the Defense Department has in the past been opposed to such legislation, but that after giving the matter a lot of thought, he feels the Department should change its position. Gates noted that many lawyers do not agree with the measure, but said that the benefits would outweigh any risks.

Representative Turner noted that Gates' support of such a measure would eliminate a lot of resistance to his previously failed Service Members Family Protection Act, which would prohibit judges from basing custody decisions solely on a service member's deployment as well as prevent permanent changes to custody orders during a service member's deployment.

Opponents of federal legislation say that it would complicate family law matters, which are usually decided at the state level. Proponents say, however, that federal protection is necessary because the variety of rules in various states combined with the military lifestyle, which often causes service members to move frequently from state to state.

Turner said that he and the Pentagon will be working together to draft new legislation that will hopefully be voted on in Congress in the next few months.

While it is impossible to know for sure how many service members have lost custody based solely on deployment, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that it is a problem and media attention has given attention to the issue.

Source: Stars and Stripes, "Pentagon to support bill to protect troops' child custody rights," Charlie Reed, 17 Feb 2011.

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