Military Parents Fight for Custody at Home

U.S. Lt. Col. Vanessa Benson is seen in the Saturday, Dec. 12, 2009, broadcast of the "CBS Evening News." She is battling for custody of her 14-year-old son John after temporarily giving her ex-husband custody before she was deployed in December 2008.
After returning home from Afghanistan, Lt. Col. Vanessa Benson is in, what she calls, the fight of her life, reports CBS News Correspondent Michelle Miller.

She and her ex-husband are battling over custody of their 14-year-old son John. Benson, in accordance with her mandated family action plan, temporarily gave the ex-husband custody before she was deployed last December with the understanding John would return home once she did. That didn't happen.

"I had gotten an e-mail from my son's father that says, 'You need to get a lawyer. I'm not sending your son back to you,'" Benson told Miller.

Benson, who serves in the 101st Airborne Division, said she hasn't seen her son in about two months and hasn't lived with him in a year.

The ex-husband did not want to talk to CBS News but has argued in court documents that it's in their son's best interest to stay with him in Florida for stability. But after seven months and $12,000 in legal bills, Benson said she doesn't think it is fair that she has to fight to win back a son she left behind to serve her country.

"I feel that I'm being put in the same category as an unfit mother," Benson told Miller.

Benson's case isn't unique. CBS News has identified 30 similar cases over the last two years. In many of them, single military parents have lost all custody rights or have had them significantly altered, increasing calls for Congress to step in.

Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, has proposed a bill he says would protect service members' custody rights by setting universal federal standards state family courts must follow.

A CBS News analysis of custody laws has found only five states that automatically return children after deployment: Kentucky, Maryland, South Carolina, Tennessee and Washington. Five others - Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia - prohibit deployment from being used in court. Fourteen others - Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Virginia - have weaker protections. The rest provide U.S. service members with no additional protections.

"It is unbelievable the number of family court judges who will willingly use a service member's time away in serving their country in Iraq and Afghanistan to take custody away from them," Turner told Miller.

The Department of Defense has successfully fought the bill since its introduction in 2007, arguing that states are better equipped to handle custody issues.

Declining an on-camera interview, the Pentagon issued this statement saying, "We strongly believe that federal legislation in this area of the law, which has historically and almost exclusively been handled by states, would be counterproductive."

Department of Defense Statement on Federal Child Custody Legislation

A change in the law won't come soon enough for Benson. A Florida judge has jurisdiction over her case. It's a state that has limited protection for service members. The judge is expected to rule on her case next week.

"We're asked to drop everything to go to combat," Benson told Miller. "Is it too much to ask that we have protection for when we come back to get our children back?"

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.