American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON — The Defense Department’s family care plan policy will expand in the coming months to encompass a wider population of military parents.
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 service member is away for an extended period of time for training, a deployment or a remote assignment.
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 service members 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. 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.
“The worst possible thing is when things come to a head while the service member is gone,” Shumake said. “The service member is going to be overseas, and that biological parent is going to pop up and be able to walk away with that kid.”
Requiring service members with a blended family to have a family care plan will help the families anticipate and solve some of these potential problems early on.
Although the family care plan isn’t a legally binding document, the service member would be able to take the plan to court and petition for a court order to enforce it.
Service members who anticipate that they won’t be able to reach an agreement with or trust the non-custodial, biological parent to abide by the order, should visit their legal assistance office so they understand the legal ramifications of not involving the biological parent.
The new policy also will address potential deployment deferment in extreme cases.
“We have no interest in ripping a service member away from a child and sending the service member to Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said. “No commander is going to want that to happen.”
When the service member can’t piece together a family care plan in extenuating circumstances, the commander has the option of separating the service member from service.
The new policy also details commanders roles in advising service members of the risks involved with designating a nonviable guardian or leaving a biological parent out of the equation.
“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.”