The new policy will require military parents with custody of children from a previous relationship to file a family care plan, said Army Col. Shawn Shumake, director of the Pentagon's office of legal policy. The requirement already is in place for dual military couples and single parents with custody.
Family care plans are used to ensure dependents are cared for while the servicemember is away for an extended period of time, whether it's for training, a deployment or a remote assignment, Shumake explained. The document includes everything from designation of temporary guardianship to arrangements for financial and logistical support, including relocation and medical care.
While the family care plan always has been a required and useful planning tool for dual-military couples and single parents, the lack of inclusion of "blended" families represented a "gaping hole" in the policy, Shumake said, prompting the first policy update since 1992.
"What we're trying to do is put these servicemembers in the best possible position before they leave," he said.
In recent years, Shumake said, he has seen an increase in custody disputes involving blended families that mostly arose from a lack of prior coordination. The deploying parent may designate guardianship to the step-parent, for instance, only to have the biological parent intercede while the custodial parent is gone. And the biological parent has every right to custody of that child, he explained, unless extenuating circumstances exist.
This situation can put a deployed parent in a tough, stressful spot while far from home, he noted.
"The worst possible thing is when things come to a head while the servicemember is gone," Shumake said. "The servicemember is going to be overseas, and that biological parent is going to pop up and be able to walk away with that kid." Requiring servicemembers with a blended family to have a family care plan will lead to anticipating some of these potential problems early on, he said.
Shumake noted that although it's helpful, the family care plan isn't a legally binding document. But if it's prepared early enough, the servicemember generally would be able to take the plan to court and petition for a court order to enforce it.
Servicemembers who anticipate that they won't be able to reach an agreement with or trust the noncustodial, biological parent should visit their legal assistance office so they understand the legal ramifications of not involving the biological parent, Shumake advised.
The new policy also will address issues that affect all parents required to have a care plan. For instance, if a catastrophic circumstance arises –- a temporary guardian refusing to care for the child or getting into an accident and being unable to provide care, for example -- the new policy allows for a deployment deferment until the issue is resolved. Commanders also will be sensitive to those circumstances, Shumake said.
"It would shock me if there was any commander out there who would not allow a military parent the opportunity to deal with that and figure out a good response," he said. "We have no interest in ripping a servicemember away from a child and sending the servicemember to Iraq or Afghanistan. No commander is going to want that to happen."
In extreme cases, when the servicemember just can't piece together a family care plan, the commander has the option of separating the servicemember from service. "The commander needs to rely on his people and needs to know they'll be there," Shumake said.
The commanders also are tasked with advising servicemembers of the risks involved with designating a nonviable guardian or leaving a biological parent out of the equation, he explained. The new policy will outline this increased responsibility for commanders, he added.
Family care plans are extensive and can take some time to fill out, Shumake acknowledged, further underscoring the need to start well in advance of a departure. Legal assistance offices are a valuable resource for help with a plan, as well as Military OneSource at http://www.militaryonesource.com or Military Homefront at http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil.
For parents needing more extensive assistance, such as those seeking court orders to establish guardianship, Shumake advised they first check with their legal office for advice. Local legal offices can help to point them to free legal assistance, such as that offered through the American Bar Association's Military Pro Bono Project.
Above all, the aim is to avoid problems in the first place, Shumake said. "We want to mitigate or avoid the problems before they happen," he said. "Deployments are stressful enough without the added worry of care for your children back home."