Information Systems Technician (Submarines) 2nd Class (SS) Matthew Hindes poses with his daughter, Kaylee, in a screenshot from a video posted on YouTube by one of the many supporters of Hindes who've sought to spread the word online. (YouTube)
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Your Legal Rights
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act allows troops to temporarily suspend legal and administrative proceedings while they are deployed, ensuring that a deployment won’t deprive them of the right to have their day in court.
Mark Sullivan, a retired Army Reserve colonel who specializes in military divorce cases, recommends that every custodial parent have a court order, or consent order, that identifies who will have responsibility for the child in the event of deployment — and that it is signed by both biological parents.
When a sailor receives notice of an action or proceeding, he or she can file an application for a stay of proceedings for at least 90 days, although this period can be extended. This stay requires four elements:
■ A statement from the service member that explains how current military duties prevent him from appearing in court or being involved in the case.
■ A statement from the service member that establishes a date when he will be available to appear.
■ A statement from the service member’s commanding officer stating that the service member’s current military duty prevents appearance.
■ A statement from the service member’s CO that military leave is not authorized for the service member at the time.
Countless service members and citizens demanded justice when a sailor — unable to attend a June 16 court hearing because his sub was deployed — was threatened with jail time and losing custody of his 6-year-old daughter.
After the outcry, the custody hearing was postponed June 23 until October, under a federal law that protects deployed troops from such a scenario.
A lawyer representing Information Systems Technician (Submarines) 2nd Class (SS) Matthew Hindes filed for a stay under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which requires the temporary suspension of judicial and administrative proceedings that may adversely affect a service member’s civil rights during their military service. A specific provision grants service members a 90-day window to appear in court for cases related to child custody.
Hindes, 28, has primary custody of his daughter, Kaylee, with his current wife, who resides in Washington state. Attempts to reach Hindes, who’s on deployment aboard the guided-missile submarine Michigan, were unsuccessful.
Hindes’ first wife, Angela, filed for divorce in 2009 after three years of marriage. The sailor accused her and her boyfriend at the time of abusing and neglecting Kaylee, who was removed by Michigan Child Protective Services in 2010. The submariner was granted legal and physical custody of the child.
Angela Hindes pleaded no contest to assault and was given a 10-day jail sentence and probation ending in September 2012, according to court records. She was allowed supervised parenting time, but overnight stays were prohibited. She filed a petition for a change in the custody order in August 2013 and in April asked the court to decrease her child-support payments because she lost her job and has another baby.
When the petty officer did not appear June 2 to the Lenawee County, Michigan, courtroom due to his deployment, Circuit Judge Margaret Noe ordered him to appear June 16 “or present the child.”
“At this point, I don’t think I have any alternative but to enter a bench warrant for his arrest,” Noe said at the June 16 hearing when told neither Matthew nor Kaylee Hindes were present. “If not in the care and custody of the father, the child should be in the care and custody of the mother.”
Hindes’ wife, Benita, has cared for Kaylee for four years and vows to keep fighting to care for their daughter, saying that the girl’s biological mother will neglect her.
“Kaylee’s our number one priority, and we will do anything to make sure she’s safe,” Benita Hindes told Fox News in a June 27 interview.
Unfortunately, custody battles are all too frequent on deployment — or immediately afterward.
Petty Officer 2nd Class John Moreno deployed in 2007 while his wife was pregnant with his daughter, Vanessa, at their home in Virginia. Upon returning, he found his wife had moved to Arizona and refused to let him see his daughter. He petitioned a judge in Virginia to order her to return his daughter, but he said the judge claimed that he didn't have jurisdiction in the case because Moreno had been given military orders to leave Virginia. Repeated efforts for legal solutions have failed.
Or take the case of Army Lt. Col. Vanessa Benson, who took the step of temporarily transferring custody of her 14-year-old son to her ex-husband when she deployed to Afghanistan in 2009. But when she returned, her ex said it was in their son’s best interest to stay with him for stability. Benson regained custody after months of court hearings and thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Strengthening the law
The Hindes’ legal dilemma sparked outrage that reached all the way to the halls of Congress. Protesters gathered outside the courtroom. A week later, Noe said she did not know Hindes was deployed and postponed all proceedings.
Some lawmakers cited the Hindes case as further evidence of how service member’s legal rights need to be bolstered. One of the foremost champions is Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio.
“The law is not being followed” in Hindes’ case, Turner said in a June 20 statement regarding the SCRA. “This law is directly intended to prevent cases like this. But even when the law is followed to the letter, our service members are still placed at a severe disadvantage in child custody proceedings. We need a national standard that ensures the parental rights of our service men and women are properly safeguarded.”
Turner included protections in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act that state current and future deployment cannot be a factor in child custody decisions. The NDAA passed the House on May 22 and is awaiting Senate approval.
But Turner’s Service Members Family Protection Act has been here before. In fact, it has failed to get Senate approval four times despite being passed by the House of Representatives with no opposition.
This time, however, Turner has the support of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in a Feb. 15 letter agreed that the Defense Department “should change [its] position to one where [they] are willing to consider whether appropriate legislation can be crafted that provides Service members with a federal uniform standard of protection in cases where it is established that military service is the sole factor involved in a child custody decision involving a Service member. ... [W]e should work with Congress to pursue an acceptable legislative formula.”
Turner believes Gates’ support may be enough to push through his provision strengthening SCRA. According to Turner’s office, 13 states have few or no state laws safeguarding troops’ custody rights. Twenty-one have some laws on the book, and 16 have met the Defense Department’s current desired level of protection in child custody cases.
“With continued support amongst members of the House Armed Services Committee, the House as a whole, and now the [former] Secretary of Defense, there is an opportunity to extend military parents the protection they deserve,” Turner said in the statement. “The least we can do is to ensure that our soldiers’ rights as parents are being guarded while they defend our freedom.”
The Detroit Free Press and The Associated Press contributed to this report.