RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A growing number of soldiers are losing custody of their children. And advocates for military families say it's not because they're bad parents, it's because they've been deployed overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan. A new law strengthens protections for military parents in custody cases, but legal experts say some are still vulnerable. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN: It's supper time in a small rundown house on the outskirts of Albany, New York. Tanya Towne is coaxing her four year old son Darren to eat.
Ms. TANYA TOWNE (member of National Guard): No, you're gonna stay there and eat your ravioli.
Mr. DARREN TOWN (Tanya's 4 year old son): I don't want it. I just ate one.
MANN: Towne's other child, her 12 year old boy Derrell isn't home. Derrell no longer lives with his mother.
Ms. TOWNE: He's in Virginia, so I hardly get to see him at all.
MANN: Towne and Derrell's father, Richard Diffin, were divorced eight years ago. She was granted primary custody and raised Derrell along with her second son by a different marriage. But when Towne's National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq in 2004, a family court judge in Montgomery County, New York, granted temporary custody to Derrell's father. The boy went to Virginia while Tanya Towne spent a year guarding conveys near Tikrit. Just before she returned home, he ex-husband asked for permanent custody of Derrell. Following a trial, the family court granted his petition. Towne says she's certain her child was taken from her because of her time overseas.
Unidentified Female: The father never questioned custody prior to this, so why now? Because she's going to Iraq, is there an issue?
MANN: Tanya Towne appealed and last month the state appeals court in New York issued its ruling. The five judge panel praised Towne calling her an excellent mother. But in a unanimous ruling, the judges upheld the family court's decision. The judges found that the deployment and other changes in Towne's life, including the breakup of her second marriage had contributed to an unstable home life. Towne says she was devastated.
Ms. TOWNE: I don't care how they word it; it's a punishment to the soldier. The whole reason I'm in this situation is because I did a job for the military and it's gotten me no where.
MANN: Pentagon officials in military family's support groups say there are no statistics on the number of military parents who've lost custody of their children following deployment. But they agreed that the number is increasing, sending waves of anger and fear through the military. The Army Times Newspaper published a scathing editorial on the subject last month, written by managing editor Chuck Finch.
Mr. CHUCK FINCH (Managing Editor, The Army Times): The idea of, you know, we have a voluntary military and the idea of volunteering to serve your country and then facing the prospect of losing your children is just, you know, it's a little mind-boggling.
MANN: In January, President Bush signed a bill that included new language designed to strengthen protections for military parents in custody cases. The Service Member Civil Release Act now includes a provision that specifically calls for custody cases to be delayed for at least 90 days during overseas deployment. It also requires that attorneys be appointed to represent military parents in such cases. But Greg Rinckey, a former army attorney who specializes in military law, says judges are still free to rule that lengthy and repeated deployments have disrupted a soldier's life to such a degree that a child's custody should be altered.
Mr. GREG RINCKEY (Attorney): In my experience in the JAG Corp, I can say that this happens probably hundreds of times across the nation, if not even more, especially with the deployment and the op tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan.
MANN: Tanya Towne's ex-husband, Richard Diffin is himself a former soldier and says he was deployed to eastern Europe for the first nine months of Derrell's life.
Mr. RICHARD DIFFIN (Tanya Towne's ex-husband): I was raised military. I understand the potential damage that constant moving around could do to a child.
MANN: Diffin acknowledges that he never sought custody of his son before his ex-wife was deployed to Iraq. And he agrees that his case raises troubling questions for military parents. But Diffin still says his home is the best place for Derrell.
Mr. DIFFIN: I believe it to be the right decision. And I'm glad I'm not the one that had to make it.
MANN: Diffin's attorney, Robert Cohen, goes a step farther arguing that soldiers such as Tanya Towne put their rights as parents on the line when they volunteer for military duty.
Mr. ROBERT COHEN (Diffin's Attorney): She was not drafted. This was a job choice. She went into it with open eyes.
MANN: Tanya Towne still works full-time for the National Guard, but she says the legal battle over custody of her son, has left her penniless.
Ms. TOWNE: So it's been very, very traumatic, you know, just trying to sustain day to day life and still fight to get my son back.
MANN: Towne says that she hopes that New York State Supreme Court will review her case. Meanwhile, the courts have ordered her to pay $500 a month in child support for her son.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.
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