State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, said she was inspired to introduce a bill that mandates no judge enter an order changing the custody arrangement of a child of an active-duty military service member because grandparents who lived in her Senate district were barred from seeing their grandson while their son was deployed to Iraq.
"He was divorced," said Ms. Baker. "While he was overseas, the situation between the parties was strained and the ex-wife didn't want to honor the custody arrangement by allowing his parents to have continuous opportunity to see their grandchild."
The separation of children from their parents serving in the military overseas is already difficult, but that difficulty is compounded if children are separated from their deployed parents' relatives, Ms. Baker said.
Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill into law April 12.
Under the new law, a service member who is being deployed abroad may petition the court for a temporary order to assign custody rights to his or family members.
"It means when a service member is deployed the court cannot change the custody arrangement for the child unless it finds it is in the best interest to do so," said Mark R. Alberts, a principal with Gentile, Horoho & Avalli in Pittsburgh and chair of the Allegheny County Bar Association's family law section.
It also allows the service member to file a petition that would have to be joined in by his or her family members -- "basically, the family members step into the shoes of the deployed service member and can exercise the same custody rights that their service member had been granted under the order," Mr. Alberts said.
The law also will allow parents serving in the military overseas to testify by phone, videoconference or other electronic means if they can't appear in the courtroom, Ms. Baker said.
Megan E. Watson, a partner with boutique family law firm Berner Klaw & Watson in Philadelphia, said that the purpose of the law is to recognize the sacrifice that deployed service members make.
Ms. Watson said that the law provides that custody arrangements, even if made informally and without a court order, can't be changed if a service member has family members who have stepped into his or her shoes and "take over his or her custodial rights."
Ms. Watson said that the law seems to assume that once a parent comes back from serving in the military, he or she would regain custody.
But Ms. Watson said that a "child-centered approach" would require the court to conduct a best-interests analysis of restoring custody to parents who have not had regular access to their children for a period of months or years.
A lot of veterans or still-active service members are coming back with "unmet mental health needs, unmet physical health needs and they're not necessarily in the best position to take custody back," Ms. Watson said.
The change in custody law regarding the military was a priority for the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Defense, Ms. Baker said.
With this legislation now in place, Pennsylvania's custody law has changed dramatically since 2011.