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Family care plan change addresses child custody

WASHINGTON A recent change in Defense Department policy highlights why servicemembers and deployable civilians, who also are custodial parents, may want to seek legal help in arranging their children’s care during deployment.

DoD Instruction 1342.19, “Family Care Plans,” was revised in May to require such plans from servicemembers and expeditionary civilians who have legal or joint custody of a minor child. The new policy requires these parents to attempt to obtain the consent of the noncustodial or adoptive parent to any family care plan that would leave the child in the custody of a third party.

“We hadn’t even required those people who were married, but had a blended family, to even consider what’s going to happen to that child when they’re (deployed),” a Pentagon legal spokesman said. “You can’t just assume that the child will be placed with a new spouse, because you’ve got another parent in the picture,” “Our new policy is focused on ensuring the noncustodial biological parent is contacted, and that (deploying servicemembers and civilians) discuss arrangements with that person.”

Army Col. Shawn Shumake, the director of the Pentagon’s Office of Legal Policy, said many servicemembers may believe mistakenly that their family care plans allow them to transfer temporary custody to a child’s steparent or grandparent during a deployment. But when another biological parent is in the picture, state courts have unanimously ruled that a parent’s custodial rights take precedence.

“If you see that there’s going to be a conflict (over custody), then you need to go into court before you deploy, and get the court to resolve any issues,” Shumake said.

While developing a family care plan, filers identify short- and long-term care providers, supply documentation of financial arrangements ensuring the self-sufficiency of family members, complete transportation arrangements and designate escorts for family members and otherwise prove their families’ needs will be met during their absence.

Each military branch has its own regulation covering family care plans, and the services are revising those regulations to comply with the DoD instruction, Shumake said.

The instruction, originally published in 1992, initially applied only to single-parent servicemembers. Beginning in 2008, dual-military couples with children were required to file such a plan. The policy now applies to:

• Servicemembers and civilian expeditionary work force members who have legal custody or joint custody of a minor child

• Single parents

• Dual-service couples with dependent family members under the age of 19

• Servicemembers and expeditionary civilians legally responsible for others of any age who are unable to care for themselves in their absence

The revised instruction also incorporates Section 556 of Senate Report 111-35, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010, which advises the DoD to:

• Ensure that commanders inform servicemembers of the overriding authority of state courts to determine child custody arrangements

• Strongly encourage servicemembers to seek legal assistance

• Advise servicemembers that failure to inform the noncustodial parent about the family care plan in anticipation of an absence can undermine the family care plan or even render it useless

More than half of the 2.2 million U.S. men and women serving in the military are married, and 43.7 percent of the active duty force has at least one child. More than 1.7 million American children under the age of 18 have at least one parent in the military.

Shumake said servicemembers in such families, and their civilian counterparts, carry a dual responsibility.

“You’ve got to ensure the mission can be accomplished. But of course, we can’t have our folks deploying and leaving children unattended,” he said. “The push behind the family care plan is to get people to think about, in a logical, established way ... how to take care of the children, and who they’re going to leave them with, and to come up with contingency plans.

“It’s taking care of the mission,” he continued, “but it’s also making sure you can be a good, responsible parent.”