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Protecting deployed troops from custody battles

It had become an unintended and heart-wrenching side effect of war: Some deployed military parents left battling on two fronts, for the country they are sworn to defend and the children they were losing in custody disputes because of that duty.

Now family advocates are hopeful that a change to a federal law will help protect these men and women in uniform from having to fight for their kids while serving their country.

The change to the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act was part of a defense bill President Bush signed into law this week.

The act has always partially shielded service members by staying civil court actions and administrative proceedings during military activation. They can't be evicted. Creditors can't seize their property. Civilian health benefits, if suspended during deployment, must be reinstated.

However, before the change, some parent-soldiers were losing something even more precious after being called up.

Previously, child custody arrangements were not specifically addressed in the act -- and some family court judges had refused to postpone custody decisions until the soldier could appear.

Under the change, the act clearly states that deployed service members who seek a stay in custody disputes shall be granted at least a 90-day delay. The act also now protects service members against default judgments in custody proceedings while they're away.

"It spells it out," said Kathleen Moakler, director of government relations of the National Military Family Association. "It really should've been assumed to be covered already, but because family court judges were choosing to disregard that section of (the act), Congress had to pass something and kind of underline it."

The change was pushed by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, who read an Associated Press story last May that revealed the custody fights facing an unknown number of the 140,000-plus single parents in uniform.

"Service members were protected if a bank foreclosed on their house or went after their car ... but we had failed to protect their children," Turner said Wednesday. "It's unthinkable that our men and women in uniform, when they're deployed, would have the added stress of worrying about the custody of their children."

Turner said he is hopeful the amended act will make judges think twice before using a military parent's deployment as the primary reason for permanent custody changes. Still, some military lawyers and advocates worry that custody problems will continue for these service members unless similar protections are written into state laws, which generally govern family courts.

Consider the case of Lt. Eva Slusher (formerly Eva Crouch) of the Kentucky National Guard. Slusher had raised her daughter, Sara, for six years following her divorce. Then she was mobilized, and Sara went to stay with Slusher's ex-husband under what all agreed was to be a temporary arrangement. When Slusher came home a year and a half later, however, her husband refused to return Sara to her and a judge made the temporary arrangement permanent.

Slusher spent two years and some $25,000 pushing her case through the Kentucky courts, until the state Supreme Court held in 2006 that Sara should be returned to her.

The change to the federal law, Slusher said, "will give soldiers peace of mind."

Deployment, she said, "could happen at any time, and to have your kids taken away from you because of that is insane."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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