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South Carolina legislators want to ensure that the state's service members don't have to fight for visitation rights at home while serving the nation abroad.
Formally called the "Military Parent Equal Protection Act," the bill moved quickly through the S.C. Senate and would prohibit judges from permanently modifying child-custody terms because military parents are separated from their children while on active duty.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, passed the Senate on Wednesday and has been referred to the House Judiciary
Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, said the bill provides protection to those who protect the nation's freedoms.
"When the Iraq war began about six years ago, our military parents expected hardship and sacrifice, but never dreamed that their children might be taken from them while they were serving our country overseas," Davis said. "One's service in the military should not ever be part of a tug-of-war over custody or
Davis cited a 2003 case involving a California-based Navy SEAL who was nearly bankrupted when his wife moved out of the state and was granted custody of his son while he was deployed to
Afghanistan. That's the kind of situation the bill was created to prevent, said Davis.
The bill also requires that the parent with custody make children available for visits while the service member is on leave and bars courts from making permanent changes to child support orders based on income or earning capacity of the military parent during active service.
Analysis of the bill by the Judicial Department indicated the legislation would have little impact on the state's general fund but would require more time on the part of the family court judge and likely delay the court docket.
The legislation also seeks to prevent courts from modifying or issuing final custody orders while service members are overseas and unable to argue their cases in a family court.
Kelly Hruska, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association, said the bill levels the playing field for military parents in custody disputes.
"This is good legislation. It protects both parties but doesn't penalize the military parent for serving," she said.