Panel Looks to Harmonize Child Custody Laws

18/07/2012 - A US legal panel is working to improve the patchwork of laws at the state level that currently govern child custody among military families.

A national body in the United States is working to clarify laws pertaining to the custody of children who have at least one parent in the military. The panel is meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, to give final approval to a new legal code, reports the Associated Press (AP).

The Uniform Law Commission is working to harmonize variable state laws on child custody. Being in the military can add geographical challenges that further complicate family disputes.

Being overseas or returning from a tour may leave parents in a lurch when it comes to legal rights. Even being transferred to a base in another state can make an already tense issue such as custody battles worse by bringing in jurisdiction matters before state courts. Other issues at play are the visitation rights of extended family or step-parents when a parent is deployed.

Since the first Gulf War, with conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the deployment of members of the US armed forces has been rising. Deployments are particularly high among the National Guard and Reserve.

While many states do have some type of legal framework in place, these frameworks on custody and visitation are not standardized across country, says the AP.

The century-plus old Uniform Law Commission is composed of 350 distinguished lawyers coming from all states. The group met today in order to sign off on the Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act. With final approval, state governments may adopt the act and its provisions.

One thing that the law establishes is that the absence of a military servicemember from a particular state will not deprive that state of custody jurisdiction, according to the AP.

"For most cases, a move is a purely voluntarily thing. For servicemember, the move is not voluntary and that involuntary move should not be punished,” said Commission member, Mark Sullivan.

Last year, it was reported that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed that the military divorce rate was 3.7 per cent in 2011, up from 2.6 per cent at the start of the decade. Meanwhile the civilian rate was 3.5 per cent in 2009.

In Ottawa, Canada, the Military Family Resource Centre supports families in the armed forces. Earlier this year, a workshop was held to help blended families cope with any stress of their situation. In Canada, two in five marriages end in divorce, says the Canadian Step Institute. Three-quarters of all divorcees will remarry, creating blended families with the children from past relationships, said a Canadian Forces news release in April.

“In a military family, deployment is the big issue. When one parent is deployed for weeks or months at a time, the other instantly becomes a single parent” said the release.

But, Marion Balla, the social worker who led the workshop, emphasized the support military families can find on their bases.

“There are social workers, resource centres, support groups and people who are in the same situation,” she said.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child—which the US has signed not ratified, but to which Canada is a state party—touches on some issues related to child custody.

The convention establishes the child’s right to be cared for by his or her parents (as far as possible). It also states that countries should ensure that children will not be separated from their parents against their will, unless it is in their best interests. Otherwise, children separated from their parents have the right to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents.