It’s a safe bet that nobody attending a Twin Cities screening of “Divorce Corp.” on Sunday night would use the word “surprising” to describe it.
Pretty much everybody there knew how this story would end.
Divorce Corp., an 88-minute documentary narrated by Drew Pinsky (aka “Dr. Drew”) is an uncompromising indictment of the $50 billion-a-year American divorce industry, from greedy lawyers to unscrupulous judges to inept child custody evaluators.
“This is a business,” says one lawyer. “This is not social services.”
The movie, which runs through Jan. 16 at AMC Showplace in Inver Grove Heights, is somewhat flawed, and unfair to a growing number of legal do-gooders swimming upstream in unfriendly waters. Many of them hail from Minnesota and were in the audience.
See it anyway. “Divorce Corp.” is a conversation starter, and we need to keep talking about the best, and worst, practices for helping families navigating this difficult passage.
As the film accurately notes, that passage got longer and pricier beginning in the 1970s, when then California Gov. Ronald Reagan created the country’s first no-fault-divorce. Divorces skyrocketed, and now hover around 43 percent of all marriages.
Although only a small percentage of divorces go to trial, few couples escape getting scorched by what director Joseph Sorge presents as an adversarial legal system, where the money monster sucks any potential goodwill from once loving couples.
With divorce lawyers admitting on camera to charging up to $950 an hour, what’s their hurry to get to a resolution? The pain only intensifies when children are involved.
One lawyer explains unapologetically how she can make a father look terrible in the eyes of a judge in three seconds, by peppering him with questions like the name of his kid’s teacher. Does that mean he’s a bad dad? Not at all, she quickly clarifies. He might be a great dad. But if she’s representing the wife, she does it anyway and judges buy it.
Still, for every outrageous act against a father, there’s another perpetuated on a loving mother. In the American system, everybody cries.
The $2 million film spends too much time on salacious cases, like a child custody evaluator whose private life includes leather and chains, and a horrid video clip of a family court judge taking a belt to his own special needs child. We don’t need extreme examples when the challenges for the majority are painful and plentiful enough.
Its strength lies in the fact that it was made at all, considering the dearth of films about an issue that affects so many so viscerally.
“On some level I have seen every single thing in that movie,” said attendee Molly Olson, founder of the nonprofit family law reform group, Center for Parental Responsibility, and a member of two other collaborative efforts.
“Still, I am thrilled,” she said, “that such a well-done documentary is being shown nationwide to expose these problems.”
Collaborative attorney Ron Ousky agreed that the movie “may be a powerful tool in raising awareness of this very serious issue.” But Ousky, who participated in a panel discussion afterward, was frustrated that the film sensationalized examples, “that are not representative of what happens in family court, at least in our state.”
He also noted the film’s lack of alternatives to courts and pricey attorneys, such as collaboration, mediation and alternative dispute resolution. Even do-it-yourself divorce is gaining traction.
Collaborative law, a holistic, child-centered approach that keeps couples out of court, is now offered in every state, and 23 countries, Ousky noted. Yet most divorcing couples still think their only option “is to hire someone who will be really tough. But you can protect yourself and your children better by collaborating than by getting a pit bull.”
Ousky was joined by veteran family mediator Stephen Erickson, of Erickson Mediation Institute, who suggested that skilled therapists, “bullied out of the divorce system by lawyers” be brought back into the conversation and the solution.
Also speaking was Michelle MacDonald, an attorney who said she was “called to eliminate family court altogether” through her Family Innocence Project.
On the legislative front, Olson is gearing up to fight again for a shared parenting presumption bill that Gov. Dayton vetoed at the 11th hour in 2012. He’s promised to take another look in 2014.
The most powerful testimonial of the night, though, came from a state employee who works as a custody evaluator and parenting consultant, the sorts of people being trashed. Was the film unfair?
“No,” he said. “I tend to agree that our family court system is in real trouble. Minnesota is a little better than other states, but it can happen here. Family court is not the best place to help families restructure their relationships. I’ve heard numerous judges say that. “I’m trying to limit the amount of exposure that families have to this adversarial system.”