5.4 percent of active duty members of our armed forces in the US are single parents. That amounts to over 74,000. In the case of National Guard and reserve members that number is close to 68,000. Divorce rates among service personnel are on the rise.
A federal law called the Service members Civil Relief Act is meant to protect them 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.
And yet service members’ children can be — and are being — taken from them after they are deployed.
That's exactly what happened to Eva Crouch. Deployed for 1 and 1/2 years, Ms. Crouch had made arrangements with her 9 year old little girls father to care for her during her absence. They drew up a temporary order, moved her belongings to dad's, and Ms Crouch headed out. Upon her return, she called her ex, letting him know she was finally home and would be picking up her daughter the next day. His response?
"Not without a court order you won’t.”
Eva was forced into a court battle, and within a month the judge ruled that it was in the best interest of the child that she remain with her father.
Had Eva become abusive? Had she started drinking, or using drugs? No, her only crime was that she had chosen to serve her country. And now, because of that decision, she was losing custody of her beloved daughter.
Eva Crouch, spent two years and some $25,000 pushing her case through the Kentucky courts.
“I’d have spent a million,” she says. “My child was my life ... I go serve my country, and I come back and have to go through hell and high water.”
And she is not alone. Take the case of Bradley from Ottawa, Kansas. He had already joined the Marines, and his young wife Amber was in junior high when their son Tyler was born. While Bradley was in training, Amber and Tyler lived with Bradley's mother. When the marriage fell apart 2 years later Amber signed over parental rights to Bradley and agreed that Tyler would live with Bradley's mom while he was away on active duty.
She later sought custody, stating that she hadn't fully understood what she had signed. Bradley was in Fallujah at the time. He worked as a mechanic by day, and spent his evenings trying to communicate with his mother to find out what was happening back home with his beloved son.
“My mind wasn’t where it was supposed to be,” he says. And the distraction cost him. One day he rolled a Humvee he was test-driving. Though uninjured, Bradley was reprimanded.
His attorney sought a stay under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, arguing Bradley had a right to be present to testify. The judge went ahead and ordered temporary custody to Amber, and then full custody.
“The act states: Everything will be put on hold until I’m able to get back. It doesn’t happen,” Bradley says. “I found out the hard way.”
The courts decisions are to be based upon the "best interests of the child". But is that what is really happening here?
Iowa Guardsman Mike Grantham thought he was serving the best interests of his children when he arranged for his son and daughter to stay with his mother before reporting for duty in 2002. He had raised Brianna and Jeremy since his 2000 divorce, when ex-wife Tammara turned physical custody over to him.
After mobilizing, Grantham was served with a custody petition from Tammara. A trial judge temporarily placed the children with her. A year later, though Grantham had returned, the judge made Tammara the primary physical custodian.
An appeals court sided with Grantham, saying: “A soldier, who answered our Nation’s call to defend, lost physical care of his children ... offending our intrinsic sense of right and wrong.”
But the Iowa Supreme Court disagreed, saying Tammara was “presently the most effective parent.”
Now, Grantham says, his visitation rights mirror those that his ex-wife once had: every other weekend, Wednesdays, and certain holidays — Father’s Day, for example.
“Being deployed, you lose your armor,” he says.
In 2005, California enacted a law stating a parent’s absence due to military activation cannot be used to justify permanent changes in custody or visitation. Michigan and Kentucky followed suit, requiring that temporary changes made because of deployment revert back to the original agreement once deployment ends.
Similar legislation has been proposed in Arizona, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and North Carolina.
Last September Eva Crouch regained custody of her daughter. She is now remarried and expecting a new baby. But with 18 years in the military, serving her country, she is well aware that she could be deployed again.
Her heart aches at the possibility. Serving her country is not worth losing her child.
“I can’t leave my child again.”
I certainly hope that all 50 States follow suit in the changing of these laws. It is abhorrent to think that someone can go to defend our country, only to return and find that life as they knew it, with their children, has been forever altered. My heart aches for these men and women that so honorably stepped up to defend the USA and coming home, face such a horrible fate as the one outlined here.