October 03, 2011
by Jacey Eckhart
"I lost custody of my 9-year old son due to being a military spouse," wrote Chrystal Neely in a recent email.
A subject line like that will catch my attention every time. I know that courts look at a dozen factors when determining custody, from how much you love a kid to the quality of your dental plan to your willingness to maintain civil relations with your ex. I hadn't thought about how the military fit into all that. You couldn't really lose custody of your kid because you are married to an all-deploying, all-moving partner. Could you?
I had to get the story. So I called Chrystal out in Washington State where she and her soldier husband and their younger daughters are now stationed. Chrystal says this custody issue started when the family was stationed in Germany. Her husband Ken got follow-on unaccompanied orders to Korea. So they started doing all that convoluted planning that you do when you move back to the States. Instead of sending Chyle back to his dad in Ohio for the summer, everyone agreed that Chyle would wait to return to Ohio for the start of school. After Ken transferred to Korea, Chrystal and the girls would return to Ohio where Chyle was already settled. Then the Neelys would all go to the next assignment.
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," said Chrystal. "But I never should have let go of him."
Because when Chyle's dad sued for custody, the Ohio courts did not look highly on all that moving around. While court documents noted that both parties were good parents, they weighed heavily the factor that Chyle was already doing well in school in Ohio. The instability of the moves was seen as not being in the best interest of the child.
To Chrystal, it felt like she was losing her child because she chose to marry a military member who was ordered to move all the time. "It's like they have lumped us in with carnival workers," Chrystal noted wryly.
I could see her point. So I turned to Mark Sullivan, one of the foremost authorities on military members and custody issues. Does the court really believe that military life is not in the best interest of the child?
"Consistency, continuity, stability, predictability - judges are looking for those," Sullivan told me in a phone interview. "If you are moving around a lot, it is much more difficult for the judge to find in favor (of a military family)."
I pointed out that moving was not exactly an idea cooked up by military families. Chrystal didn't flip around from Germany to Ohio to Washington State because she thought it would be a jolly ol' time. The Neely family went where they were ordered to go. Didn't that matter?
Turns out that the serving-your-country factor - that thing that matters very much to military families - does not hold sway in custody cases. According to Sullivan, when the court says that they are looking for the best interest of the child, they generally look to maintain the status quo. If your ex has the kid settled with school and sports and friends, why risk changing that?
"If all things were equal (and all cases are never equal) wouldn't you always choose nonmilitary parent because of issue of the uprooting military member?" Sullivan asked.
Um, no. No, I wouldn't. Because I don't think with the same logic the courts use. I know too many military moms who are the stability of a whole family. They are the center around which the family turns. They provide a kind of reliability the state of Ohio wishes it could provide every child. Which is great for us.
But it ain't gonna help Chrystal. She put her son back on a plane to Ohio at the end of the summer leaving a huge hole in their family. Chrystal strongly believes that the courts should not be allowed to use relocation against military families in a custody case. So what do we do?
I think our first step is to take a note from Chrystal's experience and stop expecting that the court will weigh the value of military service the way we do. We must stop thinking that judges or attorneys have the same experience of military life and understand how disjointed an overseas move can be and how everyone has to take a turn at the unaccompanied tour. Instead we have to expect for now that courts are going to look at our multiple military moves and deployments like oceans of instability. We have to know that our moves do make parents with shared custody vulnerable to lawsuits based on a perceived significant change in circumstances. Even though it doesn't seem right to us, it is what it is.
Second, if you share custody, don't have that magical thinking that nothing can happen and nothing will happen. Instead, help yourself to some of the free resources specifically written for military members in worksheet form available from the North Carolina Bar Association.
Finally, we need to give credit to all those military spouses like Chrystal who hold the center and make military service possible for so many service members and their children.
If you don't want parent to have any chance of custody, have to terminate him. Can't have a half daddy. All dad or not there.
Only if a nothing - no support, no contact, abandon abuse neglect or such other conduct that is inconsistent with rights and responsibilities of partner. Only then will the court do whatever courts do.
What is in YOUR future. What do you need to do. If you ignore it bad things will come.
Jacey Eckhart is a military life consultant in Washington, DC. She is the author of "The Homefront Club" and the voice behind the award-winning CD "These Boots." Facebook Jacey or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.