Battles Abroad and at Home

When a member of our Armed Forces is deployed overseas it creates a heavy burden both for the particular soldier, sailor, airman or marine, and for those they care for. Recently several custody battles have occurred involving service members returning from abroad. Specialist Leydi Mendoza is one of these parents. After she returned from a ten month deployment in Iraq she was engaged in a custody and visitation proceeding with her child’s father. After a court appearance, Specialist Mendoza was granted daily visits and weekly overnight visits. This is merely the beginning of the case; however, with the long deployments of many soldiers it is likely only one example of a soldier fighting both a war and for custody. A New York Times article included below explains what happened in Specialist Mendoza’s case.

Dsvid Kocieniewski
September 1, 2009

PATERSON, N.J. — After 10 months in Iraq and three months fighting with her former companion over access to their daughter, a National Guard specialist was granted daily visitation and weekly sleepovers with the 2-year-old girl by a judge in family court here on Tuesday.

Leydi Mendoza, left, at a National Guard Armory family event in Teaneck, N.J. Related Soldier’s Service Leads to a Custody Battle at Home (September 1, 2009)

Ms. Mendoza’s daughter, Elizabeth, who was a year old when her mother was deployed.

The specialist, Leydi Mendoza, 22, said after the hearing that she was delighted by the judge’s temporary order and already knew how she would spend the time with her daughter, Elizabeth. “I’m going to eat with her,” Specialist Mendoza said, laughing, “and finally potty-train her.”

Elizabeth’s father, Daniel Llares, who had prevented Specialist Mendoza from spending more than a few hours with their child for fear of disrupting her routine, said through his lawyer that he was satisfied with the ruling. After several hours of negotiations among the parents, their lawyers and a mediator failed to resolve the standoff, a Passaic County Family Court judge, George F. Rohde Jr., approved a temporary agreement that would allow Mr. Llares to retain residential custody of Elizabeth but grant Specialist Mendoza the right to see the girl every day and take her home on weekends.

“This has never been about keeping the baby from her mother,” said the father’s lawyer, Amy Lefkowitz. “It’s about making a transition that will be appropriate for a child of this age.”

Despite her relief at having won more generous access to her daughter, Specialist Mendoza and her lawyer, Ed Concepcion, said she would still press for full custody.

“This is about the bond between a mother and her child,” Mr. Concepcion said.

The Pentagon does not keep statistics on custody disputes, but military family counselors said they knew of at least five recent cases around the country similar to the struggle over Elizabeth, in which a mother who served overseas is fighting for more access to her child. Congressional leaders are negotiating over legislation to strengthen custody rights of service men and women who are deployed overseas; similar bills passed the House and Senate and must be reconciled.

Some advocates say an unspoken bias against mothers who leave their young children for overseas duty has heightened both legal barriers and social stigma when these women try to resume their role as active parents.

After Elizabeth was born in June 2007, Specialist Mendoza and Mr. Llares lived with the baby at his parents’ home in Wayne, N.J. When it became clear that Specialist Mendoza would be sent overseas, she agonized over whether to leave her daughter, and she and Mr. Llares ultimately agreed to a written military family care plan that granted him temporary custody while she was gone.

“I wanted Elizabeth to grow up and be proud that her mother had served her country,” Specialist Mendoza, who is attending Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., said before Tuesday’s decision. “And we needed the health care and the military benefits and the help paying for my school.”

Specialist Mendoza, whose family lives out of state, said she ended her relationship with Mr. Llares before she and other members of the 3rd Battalion of the 112th Field Artillery unit left for Texas in July 2008, bound for Iraq. Despite the breakup, the couple agreed that she would help Mr. Llares and his parents pay for Elizabeth’s needs while overseas and assume joint custody once she returned home, Specialist Mendoza said.

But when she returned from the war, things quickly fell apart. The first time Elizabeth was reunited with her mother, both the child and Specialist Mendoza burst into tears.

Mr. Llares, also 22, severely restricted Specialist Mendoza’s visits with Elizabeth because he was concerned that the abrupt change would frighten and confuse the child, his lawyer said.

“He’s very grateful for her service to our country,” said his lawyer, Ms. Lefkowitz. “He just wants to do what’s in the best interest of their daughter.”

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