By CAITLIN McARTHUR
Capital News Service
LANSING – A bill to prevent Michigan military members from losing custody of their children while deployed overseas is a matter of fairness, its legislative sponsors say.
“I admit this is a complex issue,” said Rep. Tom Barrett, a Republican from Potterville who introduced the bill last month after a similar bill failed to pass last year. “But I don’t think it’s fair to subject service members to this treatment, and more importantly I don’t think it’s fair to put the child in the middle of it.”
The bill would prevent military service members from losing custody of their children while deployed overseas by allowing a stay of proceedings until their return. It would also prevent judges from considering military status as a factor for altering custody arrangements.
Sen. Rick Jones, a Grand Ledge Republican who introduced similar legislation late in the last session, said the bill will ensure Michigan judges comply with the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, and provide more protections than that law.
“[The] federal law protects against things like terminating lease or phone contract,” Barrett said. “This legislation is dealing specifically with child custody.”
Jones added that Michigan law would extend protections through the length of a deployment, rather than the 90-day limit in the federal law.
Barrett, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay and now pilots helicopters for the National Guard, said the bill has received support in the House. He said service members shouldn’t be in a position where they are serving their country overseas and being held to standards they can’t meet back home.
“I would hope we wouldn’t need a law like this,” Barrett said, “but this issue needs attention. Judges have gone out of their way to inflict this upon our service members.”
Jones, who said he is working with Barrett to see the bill passed this year, said troops need to be able to serve their country without the distraction of a custody battle back home.
“When someone is on the front line, whether it be in a nuclear submarine or whether it be a soldier in Afghanistan, they must be alert, concentrated and not worried, thinking, ‘Will I lose custody of my children?’” Jones said.
Both Jones and Barrett cited the Lenawee County case of Petty Officer Matthew Hindes as the reason for their focus on this issue.
Hindes’ custody battle last year caught the attention of the media after he was faced with contempt charges and the loss of custody of his daughter for failing to comply with a judge’s demand he appear in court — while he was deployed on a nuclear submarine in the Pacific Ocean.
Hindes responded with a letter explaining his military deployment the day after the order was issued by Lenawee County Circuit Judge Margaret Noe. He also provided a letter from the command staff of his submarine, the USS Michigan, supporting his claim. According to Jones, Hindes did everything necessary to secure a 90-day stay of proceedings under the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
Instead of postponing the hearing, Noe proceeded with the case. This decision led to a social media campaign and a petition on Change.org. Noe later postponed the hearing, ordering Hindes into her courtroom days after he stepped off the boat.
Hindes’ case has since been moved to Washington state, where he is stationed. Noe’s office said she would not be available to comment on the case.
Congress has been reviewing state courts’ use of service members’ military service as a factor in child custody hearings since 2007, according to a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service. But Michigan has no law addressing the issue, leaving discretion to state judges.
At the time the Congressional report was released, 142,000 military members were custodians of minor children. Allegations from service members that their military service, and deployment, could be used against them in child custody cases was the catalyst for the Federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
While the law was passed with military custody issues in mind, parents advocate Ned Holstein said the legislation has often failed to protect service members and needs to be reinforced by explicit state laws. Holstein founded and directs the National Parents Organization, which promotes shared parenting, giving both parents equal standing raising children after separation or divorce.
Holstein said his organization has promoted similar child custody laws in a number of states, including California and Nevada, and he considered the move a step in the right direction for Michigan.
“Child development research is now crystal clear: Children do best when their loving bonds with each parent are protected after separation or divorce,” Holstein said by email. “Unfortunately, some active duty service members have found that the custody of their children has been changed in important ways while they were serving their country overseas.”
Holstein said the proposed Michigan legislation is good for the children at the middle of these court battles, and that any change in parenting arrangements should be considered upon the service member’s return, with both parties present.
The bill has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee. A similar bill is expected in the Senate in the coming weeks.
By CAITLIN McARTHUR