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While deployment is certainly challenging enough on its own, that stress can increase drastically when military parents are also dealing with child custody battles, especially if one of the parents is deployed far away.

An additional way to provide support and appreciation for military families is through shared parenting rights, regardless of whether a parent is deployed.

Shared parenting is a flexible arrangement in which children spend as close to equal time with each parent as possible following a divorce or separation, and is appropriate if there has been no domestic violence and both parents are fit. A growing body of research has shown that shared parenting is in the best interests of children, even those who are very young. Children who have meaningful contact with both parents are shown to be happier and healthier and do better in school than kids raised by single parents in traditional custody arrangements.

Some active duty service members have found that the custody of their children has been changed in important ways while they were serving their country overseas and unable to be present in family court. Sometimes when they return from overseas duty, they cannot even find their children.

HB 4071 is a step in the right direction. Introduced by Sen. Rick Jones, the law prevents judges from changing a parenting or custody agreement if one of the parents is an active-duty military member deployed. According to Jones, it will ensure military parents are not punished for not appearing in court over custody disputes while serving overseas.

The bill was proposed following a case involving a Navy petty officer who was arrested for not appearing in court for a custody hearing while deployed in a submarine, also losing custody of his 6-year-old daughter. The orders were later canceled, but the controversy illustrates why Michigan’s law is necessary.

Because children do far better with shared parenting, Michigan’s law is good for children as well, who will be enabled to resume their loving relations with a parent who returns from overseas military duty. Any need for a change in custody arrangements can be considered then, with both parties present.

A suggestion to improve the law: If only one parent is represented during a hearing for temporary custody while the other parent is overseas, the law should be strengthened by requiring evidence beyond any reasonable doubt (as opposed to “clear and convincing evidence” as in the current law) that the proposed change is in the best interests of the child before a temporary order can be entered that changes the pre-existing custody arrangements. Further, moveaways should not be approved while one party is on active duty far away, unless there are dire circumstances.

All military children deserve to resume their loving relationships with parents when they return from overseas military duties. With this in mind, states should consider Michigan as a role model in improving laws in ways that support military families, especially children.

Ned Holstein, M.D., is founder and board chairman of the National Parents Organization.

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