photo unavailable Gathering Place

Jeffery M. Leving and Glenn Sacks

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Military dads fall victim
to child-related injustices

Laws granting deployed soldiers special protections against civil legal actions date back to the Civil War, but few of these protections extend to family courts and family law. As a result, military men's service to their country often creates the conditions under which they can become victims of injustices.

Military service costs some men their children. The federal Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act provides that if a parent moves a child to a new state, that state becomes the child's presumptive residence after only six months. Because a normal military deployment is six months or longer, if a military wife moves to another state while her husband is deployed, by the time the husband returns the child's residence has been switched and the wife is virtually certain to gain custody through the divorce proceedings in that new state.

The restrictions on military personnel's ability to travel, the high cost of legal representation and the financial hardships created by child and spousal support obligations make it difficult for returning service personnel to fight for their parental rights in another state. Many struggle even to see their children, much less remain a meaningful part of their lives.

To solve the problem, the federal Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act of 1940 must be amended to prohibit the spouses of active-duty military personnel from permanently moving children to another state without the permission of the active-duty spouse or of a court. In addition, the UCCJEA should be modified to state that the presumption of new residence does not apply if the children are taken in this fashion.

>>Another problem for military fathers is paternity fraud. According to Carnell Smith, executive director of the National Family Justice Association, many deployed soldiers are preyed upon by "father shoppers" who falsely name them as the fathers of their newborns.

"The military provides a steady, easily garnished income as well as medical care for the baby," Smith says. "It's hard to contest paternity when you're thousands of miles away and losing a good chunk of your income to child support. Sometimes the time limit for contesting runs out and the guy ends up on the hook for 18 years of child support simply because he served his country."

Several states (not including Hawaii) have addressed the problem through legislation that allows fathers more time and greater judicial flexibility to challenge paternity findings.

>> A third family law problem exists for fathers who serve as reservists and who have child support orders. Support orders are based on civilian pay, which is generally higher than active-duty pay. When called up, a reservist sometimes pays an impossibly high percentage of his income in child support, which hurts his current family. Because those who fall behind in child support are charged stiff interest and penalties, a returning reservist may spend years working to pay off arrearages. Some could even face arrest and incarceration.

Normally, when an obligor loses his job or suffers a pay cut he can go to court and request a reduction. But since reservists are sometimes mobilized with as little as one day's notice, few are able to obtain modifications before they leave. They can't get relief when they return home because the Bradley Amendment prevents judges from retroactively forgiving support.

The solution is legislation like Missouri's, which requires an automatic adjustment of support for reservists when they are called up for active duty.

Navy veteran Taron James, who has joined 600 other victimized veterans to form Veterans Fighting Paternity Fraud, believes these injustices constitute a breach of faith.

"When soldiers go off to serve they shouldn't have to worry about being taken advantage of while they're absent," he says. "Some of the guys making sacrifices abroad while being put through the ringer here at home must be wondering why they bothered."

Jeff Leving is the author of "Fathers' Rights: Hard-hitting and Fair Advice for Every Father Involved in a Custody Dispute." Glenn Sacks is a syndicated radio talk show host whose columns on men's and fathers' issues have appeared in dozens of newspapers nationwide.


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