DATELINE: US (Grand Ledge) & IRAQ
Author: Scott Rees
From : F4J (US)
Via: The Honor Network
By SCOTT REES Staff Writer
GRAND LEDGE – For the past week, Joe McNeilly’s phone has been ringing off the hook. He’s been contacted by newspapers, radio shows, and even the major television networks.
That’s the way he wants it.
McNeilly, a Grand Ledge resident and specialist with the Army National Guard, said he believes he lost custody of his 10-year-old son, Joey, because he was in Iraq for 15 months.
“This is the awareness we’ve needed. It’s great,” he said. He said he’s already been approached by other soldiers in the similar predicament.
However, the boy’s mother and his ex-girlfriend – Holly Erb, of Mason, her lawyer, and the Friend of the Court, say McNeilly lost custody because of his parenting skills.
The court referee’s report found that Erb had established a custodial environment for the child while McNeilly was deployed.
A hearing set for Wednesday, Aug. 24, before Ingham County Family Judge Janelle Lawless was postponed. A new date has not been set.
The custody battle has spurred a media blitz locally and nationally and attracted the attention of local politicians. State Rep. Rick Jones, introduced legislation this past week barring courts from using soldiers’ absence for active duty against them in custody hearings.
Jones said t 15 to 20 similar custody issues state-wide have arisen in the past three years.
“Do I expect this legislation to help me? No … but somebody needs to do this. This will help our fellow soldiers who are coming back,” McNeilly said.
Before his deployment in January, 2004, McNeilly and Erb shared joint custody. The child spent one week with his dad and one week with his mother, who also lived in Grand Ledge at the time.
Erb had petitioned for full custody of the child seven months after McNeilly joined the National Guard in 2003.
McNeilly said he agreed to temporarily give the mother full custody of their son and was told the issue would be revisited upon his return. Instead, the court referee recommended against restoring the original agreement and instead gave McNeilly visitation rights for every other weekend and on holidays.
In a recommendation, court referee Louis Belzer expressed concern over e-mail correspondences between the McNeilly and his son during his time in Iraq.
Belzer said the e-mails display a much different relationship than a typical parent-child relationship, and more as a “counterpart to share his military adventure.”
Belzer wrote, “I also question the nature of some of the correspondence relating to how to kill people in multiple ways and then indicating that ‘next time someone touches you and leaves bruises on you, I’ll be ready.’ ”
Belzer said McNeilly seemed more of the disposition to be a friend and buddy rather than a parent.
McNeilly said his statements were taken out of context and he was merely telling his son that if anyone hurt him, he should come to his father.
As for sharing his life in the military, what young boy hasn’t played with G.I. Joes, he asked.
Belzer’s report stated McNeilly was married in January, 2004, while in the military and on active status, residing with his wife and three step-children in Grand Ledge.
The referee’s report said McNeilly made a general reference to spending part of the time with his wife, and also time at his parents house and his sister’s house. He denied marital difficulties.
The referee, in his recommendation to the judge, determined that Erb would provide Joey with a more stable environment as she now resides with her husband, a step-child, and a new child by her husband.
“Them pulling him out of a consistent environment (in Grand Ledge) of six years. That doesn’t make sense,” McNeilly said.
McNeilly filed an objection to the recommendations claiming incorrect procedural information regarding the temporary order, the referee stated information incorrectly, and biased direction of the friend of the court against men.
McNeilly also stated the referee failed to mention and take into account Erb’s negative actions. She was the defendant in the case.
He claims Erb intentionally made it difficult for him to keep in consistent contact with his son, not responding to e-mails and phone calls inquiring about grades and his son’s well-being.
“Why do I have to go through this? Why does anybody have to go through this? I mean, we’re parents,” McNeilly said.
“Give me time with my son, I’ve earned it,” he added.
21st Century Dear Joe Letter Might go like this:
I’ve found another bloke and I’m taking your kid. Dad stepping on an IUD isn’t good for a child. I’m really concerned about the child.