Fearing a ruling that could lead to firefighters losing child custody because of their unusual work schedules, firefighters around the country are watching a custody dispute between a firefighter and his former wife that comes before Maryland's second-highest court today.
A District of Columbia firefighter from Lanham is asking the Court of Special Appeals to overturn a Prince George's County Circuit judge's order that ended joint custody of his two children, ages 5 and 6.
The lower court ruled against Lt. Gerald E. Burton because he had told the judge his work hours changed to meet the custody arrangement, but officially they had not. Instead, he had relied on a longtime practice among firefighters of swapping hours to meet the custody agreement.
The case will be heard by the three-judge panel as firefighters are receiving enormous public support after terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon.
Firefighters, viewing the lower court ruling as an attack on their ability to retain custody of their children, have rallied behind Burton. Many are expected to turn out for the hearing in Annapolis, though a ruling by the court could be months away.
"I can tell you it's a critical decision that's going to be made," said Lt. Ray Sneed, president of the firefighters' union in Washington. "It's going to have a ripple effect throughout the fire service."
Sneed said people would shy away from becoming firefighters if the Prince George's ruling stands, fearing that they would be pressed to choose between career and family if their relationships sour.
But Dominique S. Johnson, lawyer for the children's mother, Deidre F. Burton, said the case is being incorrectly portrayed.
"This is not a case about firefighters. This is not a case about individuals who have odd, if you will, work schedules. This is about two very small children having stability in their lives," she said.
In the Circuit Court documents, Johnson described a bitter custody battle and violence between the couple. Johnson alleged that the firefighter wrongly took a cast off his daughter, that he lied about several things, and that he called police when his former wife was a little late giving him the children.
"Mr. Burton's schedule is not a factor in the custody portion. What was a factor was his credibility," she said in an interview this week.
His lawyer at the time countered in the court transcripts that when the couple split in 1998, they arranged custody around the firefighter's schedule, and he wanted as much time with his children as possible.
His current attorney, Patricia E. Gearity, said neither she nor her client would discuss the case.
In briefs, she wrote that "parents should have the right to arrange their work and personal schedules as they wish, so long as it does not interfere with their obligations to care for the children," and that her client was being punished under a technical interpretation of changed work schedule.
Court documents say Burton told Judge Larnzell Martin Jr. that he was changing his schedule from 24 hours on and 72 hours off to a regular 40-hour workweek, which led Martin to order shared custody in July 2000 with hopes that the parents, both of whom he considered fit, would communicate better.
Less than a month later, his former wife claimed he lied about his changed work hours and sought sole custody.
At a hearing in January, Burton told Martin he traded work hours with colleagues, a common practice. In February, Martin found it was "not reasonable to rely on an informal practice as firm assurance that Defendant's employment circumstances will consistently be 8:15 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday though Friday" and gave the mother sole custody.