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Custody battle: Panel to standardize rights for military parents

A legal panel meets today to approve the Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act, a set of codes for states to adopt that will standardize custody rights for deployed military parents.

By Kristin M. HallAssociated Press / July 18, 2012

This undated photo shows US Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class John Moreno and his daughter, Vanessa. Moreno, who lives in New Orleans, has been fighting a custody battle for years over his daughter, who lives in Arizona with her mother. A national legal group that is meeting in Nashville this week wants to simplify custody and visitation laws for military service members.

Courtesy of John Moreno/AP

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.

A national legal panel that works to standardize state laws wants to simplify child custody rules for military service members, whose frequent deployments can leave them without clear legal recourse when family disputes erupt.

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The Uniform Law Commission, an influential group of some 350 attorneys appointed by all the states, is meeting in Nashville on Wednesday to give final approval to the Deployed Parents Custody and Visitation Act, a set of uniform codes that state legislatures can adopt to standardize custody rights for parents who are deployed.

With deployments on the rise from the first Gulf War through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, especially for National Guard and Reserve members, a majority of the states have implemented a patchwork of laws designed to protect service members in child custody and visitation cases. But the rules aren't consistent across the country, says Eric Fish, legal counsel for the Uniform Law Commission.

Some of the issues state courts have struggled with include how to determine jurisdiction when a military member is assigned to a base in another state, whether a step-parent or grandparent can have visitation rights when a parent is deployed, and whether a temporary custody arrangement should be made permanent when a parent returns from deployment.

"States are all across the board on those issues, so the impetus for the uniform act was to provide states with a well-conceived piece of legislation that takes the best practices from all the states that we have seen and give them some guidance," Mr. Fish said.

The commission has been crafting uniform state laws for over a century, including the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, which is used in 49 states as a standard for establishing jurisdiction and child support orders between states. Its drafts are recommendations and need to be enacted by state legislatures.

Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class John Moreno deployed in 2007 while his wife was pregnant with his daughter, Vanessa, at their home in Virginia. But when he returned he found his wife had moved to Arizona and refused to let him see his daughter.

"She had fled from Virginia, where my daughter was born, to Arizona along with everything I owned and my daughter," he said. "She was seven months old."

He petitioned a judge in Virginia to order her to return his daughter, but he said the judge claimed that he didn't have jurisdiction in the case because Moreno had been given military orders to leave Virginia.

"The state of Virginia had jurisdiction and had every right to bring her back," Moreno said.

He's gone through a string of attorneys, but never had any legal success. He said he feels like he has fewer rights in the custody case because he is a service member and the courts don't know what rights he is afforded under the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which offers legal protections to service members during their military service, such as suspending certain judicial proceedings.

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