Washington Times

Published 6 December 2001

Fireman's shift work a factor in custody

Matthew Cella
The Washington Times

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments tomorrow on whether a divorced D.C. firefighter's work schedule is bad for his children.

Lt. Gerald E. Burton, who lives in Lanham, lost partial custody of his 6-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter when a Prince George's County judge ruled in February that the firefighter's schedule provides an unstable environment for his children. He works a typical shift for firefighters: 24 hours on duty, 72 hours off duty.

"The problem we have in the fire services is the decision seemed to be based on the fact that he works shift work," said Lt. Raymond Sneed, president of the D.C. Firefighters Association. "If the decision is let stand, it will have a devastating impact on the fire service around the country."

Lt. Burton and his attorney declined comment, citing the upcoming appeal.

Lt. Sneed said he knows Lt. Burton personally and described him as a good man and a good family man.

"I've seen the interaction between Lt. Burton and his kids, and I know precisely what he's going through," he said.

According to court papers, as part of a divorce agreement that took effect in July 2000, the 16-year firefighter and his ex-wife, Diedre Burton, were granted joint legal custody of their two children.

But the agreement, which gave Lt. Burton custody the first and third weeks of each month, was made on the condition that he would modify his work schedule to a 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m., 40-hour work week.

Two weeks after the agreement was made, Mrs. Burton went back to court, charging that Lt. Burton had not changed his work hours.

Lt. Burton said he had arranged to trade shifts with other firefighters to be home during nights he had custody of his children. But in February, Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Larnzell Martin Jr. said trading shifts did not meet the requirements and gave Mrs. Burton sole custody.

Now Lt. Burton sees his children only intermittently, on days set by his wife.

"He's being punished for being a hero," said Stuart Miller, senior legislative aide for the D. C.-based American Fathers Coalition. "He's chosen to go out and save people's lives, and that's cost him his children."

Mr. Miller also questioned Judge Martin's motivations for stripping Lt. Burton of his parental rights.

"I understand [Judge Martin] is typically pretty good on custody cases. Perhaps he's just [really angry] at cops and firefighters right now," Mr. Miller said, alluding to the judge's 1998 arrest for exposing himself to an undercover police officer and touching the officer on the groin in an Annapolis Mall restroom in Anne Arundel County.

Prosecutors declined to press charges in that case, and the incident was expunged from Judge Martin's record.

Mrs. Burton's attorney, Dominique S. Johnson, said she was "shocked" at the amount of attention the custody case has received.

"This is a case that has nothing to do with the fact that Lt. Burton is a firefighter," Ms. Johnson said. She said all along she has advised her client to "keep telling the truth."

"The court heard her," Ms. Johnson said.

But the bitter custody dispute could have national implications for the parental rights of firefighters.

In October, the International Association of Firefighters filed an amicus brief arguing that if it were to stand, Judge Martin's ruling to strip Lt. Burton of custody could have a "chilling effect on firefighter recruitment and retention."

About 95 percent to 97 percent of the 240,000 firefighters the union represents in the United States and Canada work shift work.

Lt. Sneed said Lt. Burton's situation as a single parent is not unusual in the D.C. fire department and predicted the ruling could affect female firefighters as well as men.

"We have several single parents who are on the job," he said.

Copyright © 2001 News World Communications, Inc.