A state legislator is considering changes in Iowa law to better protect a soldier’s rights in child custody cases. Those changes would come too late for Michael Grantham of Clarksville, an Iowa National Guardsman.
Grantham had primary physical custody of his two kids when he was called to active duty in 2002. He arranged to have his eight-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son live with his mother while he was on active duty. "She lives like two blocks away from school, same community and the kids were accustomed to being there," he says. "There was less disruption for them."
But while Grantham was on Homeland Security duty at Fort Knox, Kentucky, his ex-wife ask a judge to grant her custody of the kids and won. Grantham’s attorney tried to use a federal law that forbids court action against soldiers and sailors while they’re on duty, but he was unable to delay the case until Grantham returned from active duty.
Dale Koch, president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, says the problem is state law often supersedes federal law when it comes to issues in family court. "The bottom line is we just try to follow what the law is in our individual states," Koch says. "For most of us, still, our primary interest has to be what is in the best interest of the child."
When Grantham returned from active duty, the court’s ruling prevented him from stepping back into his previous role as the primary parent for his children. "Everything kind of just switched," he says. "I pay child support and get the visitations every other weekend and during Wednesdays."
Grantham appealed the district court’s ruling that gave his wife custody of their kids but the Iowa Supreme Court has upheld that ruling. Similar cases across the country have prompted a few states to amend their laws to stipulate that a soldier’s deployment cannot be used against them in a child custody dispute.
State Senator Steve Warnstadt of Sioux City serves in the Iowa National Guard and he says fighting for your kids while you’re on active duty is just too distracting. "The last thing that solders and sailors, airmen and marines should be thinking about is what the situation back home is. I mean it’s a threat to themselves and everyone that’s around them," Warnstadt says. "We certainly should be looking to extend as much protection and allow those folks to rest assured that things back home are being taken care of while they’re out defending the rest of us."
Warnstadt plans to offer a bill in the 2008 Iowa Legislature to address the issue. He’s visiting with lawmakers in California, Kentucky and Michigan where state laws have been enacted to respond to situations similar to the one Grantham faced.
The Iowa National Guard’s Judge Advocate says child custody disputes should be settled at home. Lieutenant Colonel Mike Kuehn says while he was disappointed with the outcome of Grantham’s case, it has served to educate soldiers about the need for a solid family care plan — one that both parents agree to. "From my perspective it seems that there’s a number of things that can be done by the courts and by solders and ex-spouses to kind of all work together to make one of these deployments work," Kuehn says. "These deployments are a major events in everybody’s life — the children, the soldiers, but they can be made easier with a little bit of planning."
A federal law passed in 2003 makes it easier for a judge to delay a child custody hearing while a soldier’s on active duty. Grantham says he’s glad progress is being made, even if it came too late to help him. "My relationship with my kids today is pretty much like a friend of the family. They come talk to me or do things with me, but it’s not as close as it could be or was in the past," he says.
Grantham hopes Iowa lawmakers act quickly on this issue, so his court case cannot be used as a precedent against other moms and dads in the military.