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Federal bill to improve child custody rights of military members

Military service members may receive enhanced child custody rights because of a proposed federal law. The proposed legislation would prevent military service members from losing child custody because of deployment. The bill is somewhat controversial because family law issues are often left to the states to decide and the federal law would create one uniform policy on the issue across the nation. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Department of Defense also now support the legislation.

The Department of Defense and the Defense Secretary had both previously opposed the federal child custody legislation. After giving the issue "a lot of thought" Secretary Gates now supports the legislation. A Defense Department study that looked at whether military service members lost child custody solely because of deployment issues was not able to find any child custody decisions based on that factor alone. Family court records are not normally public, which makes tracking the factors of child custody decisions difficult. Still, military service members have told stories where they believed their child custody decision was based solely on their deployment duties.

Secretary Gates said the decision to support the federal legislation is against the popular opinion of the legal community, but he believes the federal child custody law will be beneficial. Previously, the Defense Department's position was that state courts were best able to determine the best interests of the child. In the mean time, the Department of Defense had been working with state legislators to pass state laws that would provide similar protection to military service members at the state level.

Source: Army Times, "Gates now supports law to protect child custody," Karen Jowers, 2/17/11

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