State Lawmaker Wants To Postpone Custody Cases For Deployed Soldiers

Monday, February 5th 2007, 9:16 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A state lawmaker has filed a bill that would prevent judges from ruling on custody cases while a parent is deployed with the military.

The bill, filed by State Sen. Randy Bass, D-Lawton, thinks the bill will pass easily, but it might not take effect soon enough for one Oklahoma soldier involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife.

Oklahoma National Guard attorneys are aiding Army Spc. David Knight, who is deployed to Iraq, as he tries to maintain custody of his 12-year-old daughter. The attorneys feel Knight's case could set a precedent that would endanger the rights of deployed soldiers.

A member of the guard's judge advocate general's office, Lt. Col. Steve Elliott, said it's unusual for military attorneys to become involved in custody disputes.

``We have a special case where the child has been, for lack of a better term, kidnapped from the grandparents by this motion,'' Elliott said. ``We kind of feel obligated to see it through.''

After a 1997 divorce, Knight was awarded custody of his daughter, and he appointed his parents as her guardian during his deployment. But in August, his ex-wife Clarissa Stephens' attorney, Carlyle Hatfield, filed a motion in state court, asking that Stephens be granted custody of the child.

Elliott said Knight was out of state training for his deployment and did not receive proper notification, then had to leave for Iraq.

Payne County District Judge Robert Murphy Jr. granted Stephens' motion, then rescinded his order after military attorneys told him of Knight's deployment. Stephens filed another, similar motion in October, and Murphy is scheduled to hear the case Thursday.

``He (Knight) was married and the child has a mother,'' Hatfield said. ``When he goes to Iraq, the child belongs with the mother.''

Under federal law, soldiers have the right to have civil legal proceedings postponed while they are on active duty. Elliott said some Oklahoma state judges believe that law doesn't apply because it is not also a state law.

Elliott said Knight's case is the first in which a judge has not waited for a hearing in a custody case involving an active-duty soldier.

Hatfield said Knight could participate in the hearing via telephone, e-mail or video conferencing.

``The Iraq war affects all of us, but that shouldn't stop us from doing what's right,'' Hatfield said. ``I think it's unfair if the war stops a child from being with her mother.''