An occasional interview series with Americans who are challenging the status quo.
More than 44 million parents and children have been separated and lost from each other in family courts, according to one study.
Documentary filmmaker Ginger Gentile refuses to let their plight be written off as the collateral damage of divorce. She is also determined to change longstanding customs and laws for custody and child support that are supposed to protect children but which she says often destroy families.
That’s the aim of Ms. Gentile’s “Erasing Family” documentary and hashtag campaign that started in Argentina in 2014.
“You can’t just have crying parents and people shouting at lawmakers. That can’t be the face of it,” said Ms. Gentile, who financed, wrote and directed the film.
The film presents heartbreaking stories of bitter divorces ensnaring children and estranging parents — the “erased” sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers who find themselves alienated by one side or ruined by support payments that leave them branded as outlaws.
It also highlights alternative divorce programs that encourage mediation and shared parenting, which prevent future childhood trauma and make divorce and separation less costly both financially and emotionally, Ms. Gentile said.
Her goal is to change divorce court, to get more mandatory joint-custody arrangements.
It’s not easy.
“This is a movement that has a ton of people behind it, but it’s not well funded or organized,” she said. “When I started looking for financing for the movie, people said I should go to non-governmental organizations involved in the issue. What NGO? I had to create the resources to make the film.”
Mandatory “shared parenting” bills pop up in state legislatures from time to time. Despite widespread public support, the bills usually die under intense lobbying from lawyers and the apparatus that surrounds divorces and family courts, all of which amounts to an estimated $50 billion-a-year industry, according to several studies.
Most states do not require a joint custody presumption. But there’s a handful that do, and those states are notable for the bipartisan support the legislation garnered.
In Kentucky, then-Gov. Matt Bevins, a Republican, signed a law in 2018 that made joint custody presumptive. The bill sailed through the legislature on 81-2 and 38-0 votes.
Two years earlier, former Iowa Gov. Jay Dixon, a Democrat, signed a bill that orders consideration of joint custody in proceedings after the two legislative bodies passed it on 149-2 and 28-0 votes.
Oregon passed legislation requiring shared parenting after lopsided votes, and when Virginia made the consideration of shared parenting required in proceedings in 2018, not a single lawmaker voted against the measure.
In 2019, the National Parents Organization gave one-third of U.S. states a D+ in a report on the progress of shared parenting laws, and the group lamented the slow pace of what it says is a superior system to all involved.
Where the movement fails, Ms. Gentile blames what she calls the special interests of divorce lawyers and state officials profiting off busy family courts.
Ms. Gentile herself is the product of a divorce so bitter she moved to Argentina to dodge it all.
She was astonished to learn the extent of the grief. Now 40 years old and with both parents deceased, social media became her source for material and financing.
In 2014, she released a Spanish language documentary, “Erasing Dad,” that was instrumental in the Argentine government adopting compulsory shared parenting laws. Two years later, back in the U.S., Ms. Gentile created a Facebook page and solicited stories.
Heartfelt pleas poured in, several of them captured in screenshots in “Erasing Family.”
“I was overwhelmed by responses of parents desperate for help but also got messages from kids, desperate to be reconnected with siblings or parents, and for the next year I talked with them over the phone and found the stories for the film,” she said.
“Now our Facebook group has 30,000 followers and I give regular live video talks with audiences in the thousands where I share advice on how to de-escalate conflict and maintain strong relationships between kids and parents post-divorce,” she said.
The documentary tracks a handful of children and “erased” parents, with the latter ranging from Dizzy, a biker-hairstylist in California reconnecting with his daughter, Ashlynn, to Caroline, who has been estranged from her son, Brian.
These families are not atomized because of drugs or arrests or molestation. They are torn apart by furious adults.
“I had no other issues than being heartbroken because I lost my children,” Caroline, Brian’s mother and an Army veteran, says in the film.
Up to 13% of U.S. adults are “alienated” from their children, meaning 22 million adults and more than 22 million children, according to research by Jennifer Harman, a professor at Colorado State University who is featured in the documentary.
The coronavirus epidemic complicated matters by shutting down many family court proceedings, and stimulus checks sometimes evaporate when state officials garnish them for child support.
But the vast machinery has its supporters, and they argue — as an attorney does at an Illinois hearing featured in “Erasing Family” — that streamlining the process could “cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Baltimore isn’t a city that crops up often in urban success stories, but Ms. Gentile credits the city’s court mediators with improving outcomes and cutting costs.
“Most people, when they first hear about more mediation, think it sounds too out there and expensive,” she said. “They think it’s some sort of utopia. ‘Why don’t we send someone to the moon’ sort of thing.”
Repeated court battles aren’t possible for many parents who find themselves on the losing end of a custody fight. Simply filing court papers in New York costs $110. Unlike in a criminal matter, family court doesn’t have public defenders, so fathers and mothers often go it alone.
“Most people run out of money,” Ms. Gentile said. “Access to justice depends on your ability to pay, though of course just because you can pay doesn’t mean you’ll get justice.”
It often takes a tragedy to push the issue to the forefront, she said.
That’s what happened in North Dakota on Feb. 5. A man’s former father-in-law allegedly gunned him down in a parking lot over a child custody dispute.
On the support side of the equation, Hollywood actress Halle Berry ignited a firestorm on Instagram last week when she called the $16,000 a month she pays in child support “extortion.”
Ms. Berry can afford such huge payments, but “Erasing Family” shows scholars at U.S. and Canadian universities who have found large pools of incarcerated men who are behind bars for not paying child support.
The film puts the plight of some men hounded by child support payments into sharp relief with a section on Walter Scott, a Black man gunned down by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Scott, who had battled charges stemming from falling behind in child-support payments, bolted from his car during a traffic stop and was shot multiple times by a cop, Michael Slager, who received 20 years in prison for the killing.
The state is much more efficient in tracking down child support scofflaws than criminals for the simple reason that most of the parents falling behind aren’t criminals, according to Ms. Gentile.
“My aunt once had a job serving criminal warrants in the Bronx for the NYPD — that’s dangerous work,” she said. “Usually finding people for child support isn’t. And the image of some doctor who buys a Ferrari and doesn’t pay his child support? That’s not really the norm, but that’s the mentality that gets applied across the board.”
The pay for Ms. Gentile’s work isn’t great, though she has financing lined up for her next project on the business of running an Ivy League school. She insists she’s not in it for the money, anyway.
“The best part is the emails I get from the kids — I always call them kids, even though some of them are in their 40s now — rejoicing at being reunited with a parent,” she said. “What is really remarkable about so many of them, though, is how often they say, ‘I thought I was the only one.’”
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