Protecting Parents Who Serve

By Glenn Sacks

Many parents serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, or other distant locales are anguished when their non-deployed former spouses or partners impede or completely block contact with their children. Too often, when deployed soldiers call their children at court-specified times, nobody answers. Letters are written, but they never reach the children.

It is extremely difficult for deployed servicemembers to effectively overcome this visitation interference. Given the length and frequency of current deployments, many soldiers lose all contact and sometimes even their relationships with their children, particularly if the children are young.

Other servicemembers return from serving to find that while they once had a custody arrangement which allowed them to play a meaningful role in their children’s lives, a new custody arrangement has come into effect which allows them only a marginal role. To regain their previous custody arrangement, they must engage in costly, time-consuming litigation, which increases conflict and fritters away much of the time and money that they would otherwise be spending on their children.

AB 313, sponsored by Assemblywoman Irene Bustamante Adams (D-Las Vegas), and SB 284, sponsored by Senator Don Gustavson (R-Sparks), will address many of the problems faced by Nevada’s active duty and reserve servicemembers. The bills passed the Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committees respectively last week.

These bills authorize Nevada courts to issue orders granting grandparents, stepparents and extended families the ability to exercise a deployed soldier’s normal parenting time. To make such an order, courts must first determine that the extended family member has a "substantial relationship with the child that has engendered a bond," that the time is in the child’s best interest, and that such an order will "facilitate the child’s contact with the [deployed] parent."

By encouraging courts to issue such orders, we allow children to preserve their loving bonds with their deployed parents, while also protecting the important relationships children share with their grandparents, stepparents, half-siblings, and other extended family. AB 313 and SB 284 will substantially reduce the current problem of deployed servicemembers being unable to enforce visitation/contact orders.

AB 313 and SB 284 also create a rebuttable presumption that, upon a military parent’s return from deployment, child custody and visitation orders will revert to the original order. The bills’ provisions aren’t inflexible or unrealistic—they do make it clear that courts can "temporarily modify a custody or visitation order to reasonably accommodate the deployment of a parent." What the Bills prohibit is courts allowing deployment to be the cause of permanent child custody changes. This protects the crucial role these parents play in their children’s lives, and helps prevent a military parent from having to re-litigate their case.

Another problem deployed parents face is difficulty in participating in family court proceedings. These bills contain provisions for expedited hearings and for allowing the deployed parent to present testimony and evidence by electronic means, including via telephone, videoconference or the internet.

There are six central reforms which advocates for military parents have been working to implement legislatively since 2005: prohibiting permanent custody orders for deployed parents; making temporary orders revert back after deployment; prohibiting deployment from being used as a factor in custody determination; allowing guardianship or visitation to be delegated when appropriate; holding expedited and/or electronic hearings for deployed parents; and extending military parent protections to National Guard and Reserves. AB 313 and SB 284 achieve all six of these objectives.

Since 2005 over three dozen states have passed military parent child custody legislation. Nevada is not one of them.

No mother or father should ever be disadvantaged in a child custody or family court proceeding because they serve. With America fighting two wars and the divorce rate among military families running high, Nevada’s servicemembers need AB 313 and SB 284.