Divorce Corp Movie Review Pt. 2

Now that I’ve seen Divorce Corp, the movie, I can see more clearly it’s analysis of Family Court and the problems with the movie itself. It takes a sledgehammer approach to Family Court – especially judges, lawyers and custody evaluators. By highlighting a few extreme examples of criminal and unethical behavior, it generalizes these cases and indicts the entire Family Court system and professionals. This is similar to arguments people make about racial groups, political groups and even family members – generalizing a select few examples to represent the whole group. It quotes knowledgeable people out of context (I know 3 of them). It ignores the fact that approximately 80% of divorcing couples never go to court and make their own divorce decisions out of court - such as in Divorce Mediation. They simply file their final written Agreements, which become court orders.

It doesn’t mention that in 60-75% of divorce cases nationwide one or both parties do not even use an attorney. It overlooks the fact that most family court judges can’t wait to leave and are only in family court for 2-3 years, then cycle out to civil or criminal courts. It barely mentions that any couple can choose Divorce Mediation at any time, which is a much better way to go and that most Family Courts encourage divorce mediation and some require it first. It leaves the viewer wondering if Family Court is really that bad – or if the movie is over-stating its case. Every racial group, every institution and every family has someone in it who has engaged in criminal or unethical behavior – yet we don’t (or we shouldn’t) generalize that person’s behavior to everyone else in the group.

With that said, I agree with the film that Family Court needs significant reform. The major problem isn’t corruption and greed (although family court has some of that, as do all institutions). From my 15 years experience representing clients in family court and my 12 years as a social worker therapist before that, the two major problems are: 1) the adversarial structure of family court, in which one party has to lose for the other to “win” and 2) a serious lack of knowledge about family dynamics and the mental health problems of most “high-conflict” cases including: substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, child alienation and false allegations.

These are complex issues and family court IS brain science (the stress of prolonged litigation harms both parents and spills over into the development of children's personalities). Family courts need well-trained and experienced people in the decision-making process. The parties in family court today are very different from those 20-30 years ago. In high-conflict cases (the ones taking most of the court’s time with repeated hearings), one or both parties have a mental health problem presenting as a legal problem. The system has to change to address this new reality, as follows:

1. Divorce Mediation, and other out-of-court methods such as Collaborative Divorce, need to be required before a family can go to court on any issue, except for emergency health and safety issues – such as restraining orders and emergency child support. Divorce mediation can handle most cases of domestic violence better than the court, because its structure is more calming and less defensive. Research shows that there is less repeat domestic violence after mediation than after court hearings.

2. Parenting Decisions need to be removed from court, except for health and safety issues. If parents can’t agree on a parenting plan (weekly schedule, holidays, etc.), then they should go to decision-making skills classes or counseling until they can (such as our New Ways for Families method). Most “high-conflict” parents are decent parents and shouldn’t be subjected to a parenting contest to get time with their children after a separation or divorce. Only if a parent alleges a health or safety issue should the judge become involved and then only to resolve the health and safety issue – such as whether a parent needs supervised contact with a child. The parents should still develop the schedule. No-contact orders should be extremely rare and temporary.

3.  Judges, lawyers and custody evaluators should receive intensive training in the mental health behavior patterns which drive most high-conflict cases, such as personality disorders, substance abuse and other disorders. These disorders are characterized by helplessness, denial and a preoccupation with blaming others. These disorders tend to underlie domestic violence, child abuse, child alienation and false allegations – and tend to make them get stuck in any adversarial process such as Family Court. It is because of the lack of knowledge of these issues that cases stay stuck in family court for months or years, as professionals form opinions about each other’s opinions about what’s going on. In the absence of knowledge, endless legal procedures keep these cases churning – more out of ignorance than out of greed (for most family law professionals).

I’m sure that the people behind Divorce Corp are sincere and have suffered some very grave injustices, and I have a lot of empathy for them. My hope is that the discussion growing out of this film will go beyond simply viewing all judges, lawyers and custody evaluators as corrupt, and instead lead to some real positive change.

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Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist and the Senior Family Mediator at the National Conflict Resolution Center based in San Diego. He has developed methods for training high-conflict parents to make reasonable decisions out of court (New Ways for Families: www.NewWays4Families.com); for training mediators to settle more high-conflict cases out of court (New Ways for Mediation: www.HighConflictInstitute.com) and for presenting concerning behavior patterns in court when necessary (HCI PatternViewer: www.HighConflictInstitute.com). He is the author of several books, including: SPLITTING: Protecting Yourself While Divorcing Someone with Borderline or Narcissistic Personality Disorder and THE FUTURE OF FAMILY COURT: Structure, Skills and Less Stress.