Parental alienation: A call to change parenting culture — and law

parental alienation

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On this Like a Mother episode I interview film maker Ginger Gentile, whose latest project is Erasing Family, a documentary about parental alienation. Award-winning documentarian and herself a victim of parental alienation, Gentile's work focuses on the now-adult children who grew up without knowing a parent, siblings, or extended family thanks to the wishes of another parent — and a court system designed to promote conflict between separated families.

Parental alienation affects millions of families, with one third of children whose parents divorce or separate losing all contact with one parent. But parental alienation goes beyond missing out on a relationship with one parent. Parental alienation means lost relationships with siblings, extended family and friends. The reasons for this human rights travesty are complex, and unfair court systems, as well as unstable, angry parents can be blamed.

To stem parental alienation requires a drastic paradigm shift in this country: one that stops celebrating mothers as the default better parent, and gets away from outdated and sexist assumptions that in times of separation, it is best for kids to have one primary home (with the mom), and occasional visit the other parent (the dad, who pays the mom). On all fronts, science has time and again obliterated these notions:

Whether you like it or not, shared parenting — which receives a 70 percent public popularity rating, split equally among men and women, conservatives and progressives, democrats and republics — is quickly being adopted by courts.

Since 2012, South Dakota, Arizona, Utah, Missouri, Virginia and Kentucky have passed shared-parenting laws, that start custody negotiations with the presumption of equal time, and this year, 25 are considering bills that would do the same. 

In other words: The world is changing, and if you're not on board with shared parenting, and recognizing the systematic atrocity that is parental alienation, time to get over it. Because faced with it in your own life, you are likely to lose in the face of a court, and if not, but judging society.

Ginger Gentile produced and directed Erasing Dad, a similar project in Argentina, and herself is the victim of parental alienation at the hands of her parents' divorce.

You can learn more about Erasing Family here, and support this important project.

I connected with Ginger through our mutual colleague Terry Brennan, the advocate from Leading Women for Shared Parenting, for whom you can thank for all that incredible legislation taking place around the country.

Related posts on shared parenting 

How to get dads involved in divorced and separated families

What to tell your kid when their dad is not involved

My kid’s dad isn’t involved and I don’t know what to say

The real reason your ex doesn’t see the kids

Close the pay gap? Get dads involved? 50-50 visitation and no child support

Should you date a guy who doesn’t see his kids?

A dad explains: “Why I don’t see my son.”

Shared parenting research: Is it really best for kids?

 

Transcript of interview with Erasing Family's Ginger Gentile

Emma: Hey everybody, if you follow me you know that one of my big passions, and increasingly so, is the importance of shared parenting. That really means presuming that both parents, both mother, and father, or two moms, or two dads, or whatever family structure is, both parents should be presumed equal parents when they split up and are no longer married or no longer together romantically. The more I learn about this, the more I am passionate about this. This is a human rights issue, it is a mental health issue for all parties involved, it is a feminist issue, because let’s think about this ladies, if we presume that we are the better parent and demand that we have the majority time with our kids and we are then entitled to ex-husband's/ex-boyfriend's money that means that we are taking on all that work and we are not working equally. We do not have equal child care and it really is a gender pay gap issue as well. That in mind, you can dig into the archives on wealthysinglemommy.com and read all about what I’ve written about. It’s just a huge, prevalent issue. Underreported and under addressed, except there is a lot of very exciting movement going on, including around today’s guest and the work that she is doing.

Ginger Gentile is a filmmaker and she is working on her second film that deals with shared parenting, custody issue, and parental alienation. This film that she’s working on right now, it’s called Erasing Family. You can learn more about it at erasingfamily.org and this is her second film. She worked on a similar project documentary, both of them in Argentina. I’m going to let her explain them in detail. Ginger, thank you so much for being here today.

A movie dedicated to shared parenting

Ginger: No, thank you, Emma, for having me and letting me talk about this exciting documentary that we’ve been working on now, it seems so long. It’s been about two years for the second documentary that I’ve been working on Erasing Family. It’s been quite a rollercoaster because one of the most interesting things about this film is that, it’s not even a film that’s been released, it’s not even a film that’s in post-production, it’s a film that’s beginning production and already I have about, I would say 2 to 5 people each day who reach out to me, desperate to tell their stories, and desperate to regain contact with their children. These people are from all over the world, all walks of life, moms, and dads. It’s heartbreaking because I’m a filmmaker so I can document what’s going on, but I really can’t offer any magic bullet or magic piece of advice. It just goes to show that this is a huge issue that we all know stories about someone who can’t see their kids after divorce or separation, but I don’t think we as a society realize how large this problem is, how stematic it is.

Emma: Summarize this for us, in a snapshot. Maybe focusing on the United States, because it is an English language film, the audience of this podcast is mostly North American. Give me a snapshot of the issue of parental alienation in separated families.

Ginger: The most up to date statistic we have is that there are 22 million parents in the US who are being erased from their children’s lives. We profile the researcher who did a poll asking random people about this, what he found is that about 13 percent of parents report being alienated from at least one of their children. We’re talking about 22 million parents in the US, and that’s, even more, children, because of course lots of people have more than one kid. What was really heartbreaking to me is that when I filmed at Colorado State University we asked the students in the class, how many of you are victims of parental alienation in some form or another, and 40 percent of the class raised their hand. This is a huge problem.

Emma: Define parental alienation for me.

Ginger: I prefer to use the term, being erased. A parent who is erased by the family courts, or who is erased by another parent. Basically, parental alienation means when a kid is prevented from having a relationship with one of their parents. This prevention can be by using the family courts, it can be by teaching the child to hate the other parent, or by threatening the child, if you see your dad I’ll take away your toys, I’ll throw you out of the house. It also can be very subtle. For example, and this is a lot of times the type that we don’t realize we’re doing as parents is, well you’re going to see your dad well I guess I’ll have to be all alone, and your dad’s so hard to deal with, or you got the bad genes from Dad. It’s such a shame your acne, that comes from your dad’s side of the family. I understand if you don’t want to see your dad because he’s so hard to deal with, has he ever hit you? Are you scared?

Emma: Parental alienation is planting all those seeds and shame around the relationship with the other parent.

Ginger: I just use that as an example because most of your audience are moms of course. What we found, I think this is very important to differentiate, is that there’s a gender bias in the court against dads having custody. About 90 percent of the custody in the United States is granted to women, but parental alienation is gender neutral. It can happen the mom against the dad, dad against the mom, mom against mom, I’m also seeing some same sex couples where this has happened. It can also happen with grandparents. We can see a grandparent being locked out of the family, but also we can see the grandparent orchestrating this because they never really liked the partner that their son or daughter chose.

These behaviors are very common. They’re seen as almost normal. What we want to do with the film Erasing Families, highlight that these behaviors aren’t normal, or maybe they’re common but they’re not healthy. A lot of times people will do them without really thinking about them. What’s good is that with education people can stop these behaviors and also schools, lawyers, family courts can encourage having both parents actively in a kid’s life. There’s a lot of education that needs to be done in addition to reforming how the courts handle these issues.

Emma: One of the things that’s really been surprising to me in terms of education, it’s how detrimental it is when one parent, again usually the father, is automatically given the every other weekend. The Friday night special, that’s what we call it in New York where I am. It’s every other weekend and maybe Wednesday night dinners with the kids. Just immediately out of the gate marginalized in the child’s life, regardless of what his involvement was when he was cohabitating with the mom. One statistic found that in those cases, within two years 40 percent of those dads have either mostly or completely removed themselves from the kid’s lives. I said removed themselves, but I think what’s important is just to look at what is happening. Why would you be encouraged— You’re just not being encouraged to co-parent. You’re being marginalized as a gender, as 50 percent of that child’s parenting. So what is the incentive for being actively involved? Parenting is so difficult if you’re not in the constant flow of a child’s life. I think your examples are really interesting, but I think that there’s also this whole other gray area, where guys are given custody but it’s so marginalized that it almost doesn’t count, and it’s perpetuating like you said, a lot of those gender stereotypes.

Difference between legal and physical custody

Ginger: Right. I think that there’s a lot of confusion because there’s two types of custody. One is legal custody and one is physical custody. If you look at who has joint legal custody, it’s actually pretty common, but you could have joint legal custody and actually not see your child very often. That’s kind of what the film is focusing on. It’s that actual need, like you said, to be involved and to be involved in the day to day. Take the kids to school, make them breakfast, help them with their homework, do their laundry, all of those aspects of parenting that’s more than just seeing them every Friday night or every other weekend. I think that’s why people think that shared parenting is a lot more common than it actually is because shared legal custody is very common, but you could have shared legal custody with the same setup you just described which is very common. There’s joint decision making, but there isn’t really joint parenting going on. People tend to fall into the default options of what society sets out for them, what the court set out for them.

The other aspect of this too isn’t just that sometimes the dads just kind of withdraw, but if you as a parent, being a mom or dad, see that the other parent isn’t letting you have time or access and then you go to the courts. You find out one, that you can’t afford the court case because it’s so expensive, the courts have a horrible backlog. I just read that in New York City there’s 225,000 cases in family court. It’s one of the most clogged court systems in the United States, family court systems. If you go to seek remedy and you find that there’s no help for you, it’s almost a logical conclusion, almost a healthy conclusion to say, well I’m going to withdraw from my kid’s life because fighting isn’t going to end well. It’s going to add a lot of stress, it’s going to cost a lot of money, and it might not even work.

This is one of the motivations for me to do the film Erasing Family, is that, and I didn’t know this until I was in my 30s, but my dad had joint custody of me, and when my mom wanted sole custody he went to a lawyer who said, I can fight it, it’s going to cost you $120,000 and you’ll lose. So, my dad kind of walked away. I didn’t realize why he did that until I was 34 when he told me because I had no idea that this went on. Did the lawyer do the right thing by encouraging him not to go to court? Or should he have said you need to fight for your kids? I mean, I don’t know. That’s up to debate, but I talk to parents all the time from all over the United States who are fighting to see their kids. It’s such a noble endeavor, but they often end up bankrupt, homeless, post traumatic stress disorder. I unfortunately also get cases of suicides. People tell me they killed themselves because they weren’t able to see their kids. It’s just so heart-wrenching, all of these stories. That’s what’s happening to the parents, so imagine what’s happening to the kids who think they’ve been abandoned, who think that they’re not loved, that they’re not good enough.

In the film Erasing Family that I’m doing now, I’m focusing a lot on the kids. It’s all through the kid's point of view. What’s very interesting is that on one side you have this parent who is so desperate to see the kid, and on the other side the kid who is utterly convinced the parent has abandoned them. When they do reconnect when they’re older a lot of times, and this is something I’ve seen now time and time again, the kid will reach out to what is the stepparent, and ask permission like I’m not sure if Dad really wants to see me, can I send him an email? Usually, the stepparent is like, oh my God, we’ve been fighting to even just find out where you are for 10 years, of course, we want to see you. We want to see you right now. The kid is just utterly convinced that this parent hates them.

Emma: So let’s just say right now if you’re speaking to these alienated families, to the kids, to the alienated parent, to the residential parent, what would you say to each of them listening to this?

Ginger: I would start off with the parent who’s in control, which is who’s the custodial parent or the residential parent: You may really hate your ex, and you might have very good reasons, and let’s just say you’re correct on that one, no matter what it’s so important for your child to have a relationship with that person, because that is half of their genetics, their identity. It’s also their extended family. Even given you the doubt that this person is not a great person, children need to learn how to deal with difficult people, and we’re not talking about, I want to make this clear, about abuse or dangerous people. A lot of times people are difficult and having a child have a relationship and make up their own opinion about that parent and their other half of their family is very important. There are ways to encourage a healthy relationship without badmouthing the other parent by saying, yes, sometimes that can be difficult, that can be hard, but why don’t you deal with it this way? Because we’re all going to have difficult people in our lives, and if we begin to erase difficult people early on, that’s really setting us up for failure because we’re really just learning to run away from problems.

To the parent who is fighting to see their kids: All I can say is hang in there, try to build a support network, try to find and look for any solution that doesn’t involve the family courts. What I have found is in some cases it’s very difficult, but volunteering in the child’s school, reaching out to other members of the family that you might still have a good relationship with. These can often bear more fruits than a legal battle.

To the kid who is listening: It’s up to you whether you love or hate your parent.

To the kid who is listening: It’s up to you whether you love or hate your parent. It’s up to you what type of relationship you want to have, but it’s very unhealthy to erase the parent and the side of your family. Often when a kid does this, they feel a lot of guilt and also sadness. When I was at a place where I didn’t talk to anybody in my family, and by that I mean my mom, my dad, my sister, my cousins, my grandmothers when both of them were dying, I didn’t even want to talk to them on the phone. After a while you’re like, my family is so crazy I just want to withdraw from this. By reuniting with my family, and I did this when I was older, in my late 20s, early 30s, I’m also able to see the good, and also by seeing the bad, I’m able now to say this is not what I want to repeat moving forward in my life. But you can’t stop repeating unless you accept that that’s where you come from. For example, my dad, he is not a generous person. He’s not generous with his time, he’s not generous with my money, and that was one thing my mother always criticized about him and she was absolutely right. Now, having a relationship with him I can see that for myself. A lot of times when I feel that I am slipping into not being generous with people, I say, do I want to be like my dad? No, I don’t. That’s very different from saying he’s not really my dad. He’s my sperm donor. I’ve heard children call their parent's sperm donor, egg donor.

Emma: I hate that. I hate that.

Ginger: And this wasn’t an egg donation or a sperm donation, these were parents who were married.

Emma: Oh I know. It’s very common and I really hate that, because it really just reduces people to their negative qualities. It’s such an unevolved way of dealing with people in our lives. To your point, people are difficult, but guess what, we’re all difficult. I’m a huge pain in the ass, I’m here to tell you that. I know that. But I would like to think I’ve got a lot of redeeming qualities too. Another thing, and I know this is highly featured in your documentary, that especially when these children become older, young adults or teenagers, and they choose to reach out, or there is a connection with the estranged parent, then their residential family, mom, dad, or step parent, they threaten and actually do reject them. They’re like, okay you’re going to be involved with your mom then you can’t live in this house anymore. Or there’s more subtle versions of that. So, what do you tell those kids, because it’s a Sophie’s choice?

Forced to chose between mom and dad

Ginger: It’s very hard because I’ve seen in a lot of different families that the kids end up getting kicked out of the home. I’ve seen this in one girl who I’m following who is quite poor, so it made her homeless. I also saw this in another girl who I interviewed who was from a very wealthy family, and she went on a vacation with her dad and she gets a text when she gets off the plane saying, don’t come home. Her mom didn’t let her pick up any of her clothes, her car, her school books, anything. She just had nothing to go home to.

From what I’ve seen is that the kids who make that choice, they often do so because the parent who they’re trying to reconnect with is in a healthier place at that time. Once they see that parent it’s, this person is more stable and better for me, or I just need to make up for lost time. So, in their minds, it’s not really that much of a dilemma, but it is very sad to know that they lose access to this family. I think it’s something where it’s not good to then reject the other side. I think you should always move forward, towards having a relationship with everybody, and I think that’s the healthiest thing. It can often be quite difficult. The other thing that I have found is that the earlier on these things can be treated and identified, the better it is for everybody because time really makes these problems so much worse.

Emma: And time can heal though, too. Time is a powerful part of every equation. Sorry to interrupt you, go on. If they sit and fester for years—

Ginger: Right. It’s just because if you have a situation where one parent can’t see the kid for a few weeks or a month, and there’s an intervention, let’s say by the courts or by the schools who say of course this kid needs both parents, blah, blah, blah, and the family can begin to heal with help, they can often get back on the right track. But, if a kid loses contact with one parent for three years, 10 years, two decades, those are very deep psychological wounds that will just require more processing, and more time, and more healing. That’s what I’ve been finding is that these problems can often be prevented. I mean, one simple thing that a lot of people deal with, I dealt with as a kid, is school ceremonies, graduations, and the parents say, if you invite the other one I won’t go. Wouldn’t it be great if schools that know that this happens, sent out a letter to everybody, or an email blast just saying graduation is coming up, we know there’s a lot of parents who are divorced and don’t like each other, we ask not to make your child choose and want to know that everybody is welcome at this ceremony, and if needed we will arrange separate seating.

Emma: Yeah, I mean it’s all little bits of activism. My ex and I have been split up for more than seven years now, and I can just tell you that we had a really contentious relationship for a long time. He was always involved, but part of my story is my ex, had a brain injury and was very unstable. Even though he was healthy and looked healthy and had physical abilities, he was a totally different person. I was scared, it was very traumatic for me. There was a time he was very marginalized in my kid’s life and I fought so hard when they were babies for him not to have overnight visits, for example.

Looking back and trying to be objective as I can, I had legitimate concerns that he wasn’t stable and he would say that now, but he also always wanted to be involved, and he also never hurt the kids. I fought this for a long time, in our far away very, very expensive, with New York City lawyers, until some point when my lawyer was like, “Look, if this went in front of a judge, the judge would just tell you tough shit, because he’s never hurt the kids.” But at the same time, he was very inconsistent about showing up. He was really flakey, he had mental health history, all of these. Anyway, long story short, fast forward seven years, now he’s very involved, we have a very, very nice relationship. I’m here to tell you if you are listening, time is an incredible thing.

I hear lots of stories, addiction is a big part of these stories often. People have bad times, people go through shit in life, and they have low points, everybody does. It’s an exercise in forgiving and healing, and then that result can be that you have a co-parent. Why? If you can have somebody that is doing this with you, that can also love these kids, that can take the kids so you can go out on a date, or can go on a work trip and build your career? It is such a better, better place to be than constantly fighting, or just having that tension with your ex. I just urge women to open themselves up, humbles themselves, and check themselves, and it’s really about the kids, but it’s about you too and what’s good for you.

“I urge women to open themselves up, humbles themselves. It’s really about the kids, but it’s about you too and what’s good for you.”

Ginger: I think there’s also a lot of, well the dad wasn’t that involved during the marriage, or I’m not sure if they will really be able to do this. Well, part of how you do it is by learning. Most women, especially nowadays, they don’t grow up raising siblings and taking care of kids all day long. It’s new for them too. What’s also interesting about some of the research I’m reading is that dads often give something very different to the kids. For too long, that has been kind of marginalized or just not seen as something that’s valuable, because a lot of times with these custody evaluations— Which is why I’m also a big fan of shared parenting, because let me tell you, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a good system for custody evaluation anywhere. They seem all very corrupt, expensive, inefficient, and silly. Often what they look for are what we would consider to be more maternal, or female traits, so the men would always do worse on these kind of tests because they’re just setup to value one thing over the other.

It’s also very interesting because I know of one case of a woman who really fought hard for the dad to not be in the kid’s life and she was always like, “I don’t think he would do a good job with my daughter, blah, blah, blah.” This guy had actually raised three kids from a previous marriage, who were all doing well. I was like, “He has three kids? And they’re okay, they’re graduating high school, they’re going to college. Why are you so afraid?” Because it’s really about power and control in a lot of these cases. What a lot of these divorce attorneys have been telling me is that people used to fight over stuff, and now they fight over the kids. Back in the day, you would laugh when people would fight over the couch, or a piece of furniture because it’s about control, but now people are using the kids and that’s just much worse than using stuff. It’s about letting them go because in a way they never really are your kids, you just have them for a time, they’re the world’s children in a way. Wouldn’t it be great, like you said, to have both parents there, and you don’t have to like each other.

Then the other thing too is that you can sometimes be a very bad spouse but a very good parent. The things don’t always go hand in hand. Just because someone was cheated on, doesn’t mean that that person can’t change a diaper.

Then the other thing too is that you can sometimes be a very bad spouse but a very good parent.

Emma: That’s the thing, they’re two different things. Exactly. I’m so glad that you brought that up. I hear that often is he’s okay with the kids 20 percent of the time but I don’t think he could swing it 50 percent. Look, I’m a mom, it can be completely overwhelming, but it’s not rocket science. There’s seven billion people in the world, very few of them have advanced degrees, it is not rocket science to raise a child. They need reasonably nutritious food, they need to sleep, and they need a hug like once a month. It’s not a sophisticated operation to raise a child. It is about that control, and I’m so glad you brought that up.

One more point I want to make is that I’ve seen many times, that’s often the complaint, women statistically file for divorce more often, they’re resentful that the guys they feel don’t step it up at home like they think that they should, but men, given the opportunity, they step into their fatherhoods in an important and meaningful way, given the space. As women, I think we have to take some responsibility for that. I think something very systematic, we’re told as women that we’re so important to our children, that we should be there all the time. Attachment parenting, and breastfeeding, and being a stay at home mom is better, and the more the better. Well, we know now, there’s a lot of science that says that’s a bunch of bullshit. After the kid is like two years old, they don’t need us that much anymore and we’re not that important. A symptom of that misinformation is that we think that we should dictate child rearing while we’re married. That, again, marginalizes men and fathers, so then when we’re separated we’re like, well he didn’t step up. But given the space, they often do, but we have to give them that opportunity and the space to step into their fatherhoods.

Women can support men being better fathers

Ginger: Definitely. Definitely. Part of this too is just in the United States it’s very difficult because there’s a lack of support. Social services and free schooling and healthcare to help parents who are going through this, and also to allow parents to have a career and balance it. That’s another issue that we won’t get into now, you get into it on your blog of course, but there’s a lack of support out there, and this encourages women to sometimes drop out of the labor force. When childcare is so expensive and hard to come by, it becomes this kind of huge situation. I’m dealing with this right now with my boyfriend. We’re talking about starting a family and he’s from Europe and he’s like, “I love it here, but I don’t see how we could raise a kid here.” He said that to me. There’s no support, and his sister is in the Netherlands, she went back to work after three months even though she had a year, and her husband too, of parental leave. They both decided to go back to work. They have very inexpensive daycare, all day long, three or four days a week, and it’s just the other day that they both switch off.

Emma: We’ll do another documentary about northern European social welfare system and motherhood. I could talk about that all day long. But back to the co-parenting thing, let me ask you this, you shared a little bit about your story, I actually respect the lawyer who told your dad don’t give me $120,000 of your dollars. And this was what? Probably 20 or more years ago, so that was a lot more than $120,000 in today’s dollars. I mean, because there’s so many wonderful divorce and family lawyers out there, and I think increasingly a big push towards mediation, there’s a lot of really positive things happening, but the bar associations and the family lawyers, they are perpetuating the problem in many cases. I’m just curious, what do you think the right answer would be? Do you wish your dad had fought?

Should men fight for custody and visitation?

Ginger: I wish my dad had done things differently, but I think that was probably for the best. I encourage people to withdraw from family court if they don’t have a clear strategy for changing the situation. Sometimes people are able to have a good lawyer, do research, and be able to come up with a strategy and think outside of the box. They can see how the courts are working and they can align, but if you have been in court for 12, 15 years, and nothing is changing, I think, put that energy and time into reconnecting with your child in a different way. For some people, it’s advocacy and activism. For some people, it’s trying to find another way to remain present, and it’s very heartbreaking. I always think the definition of craziness is doing the same thing twice and expecting different results. I tell parents who are going through this, it’s very hard if you’re spending all this time and money going to court, what if you spent that same time and money on lobbying to change the laws? On educating? On helping other people? On forming a support group? On doing all of these things.

What I do feel though, and I didn’t say this before when you asked me what I would say to the parent who is fighting to see their kids. A lot of parents get this, but some don’t. If the kid has been taught to reject you and hate you, or just is afraid of you, you really have to understand that they are not speaking of their own free will and that they’ve been brainwashed in a way, and not react in kind. If a kid says, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, the response needs to be, I understand, but I love you, and not, how dare you disrespect me, I’m your parent. You ungrateful little blah. Because you can’t get down on their level. I wish my dad maybe took the higher ground in some ways like that. I think that he didn’t have the benefit of all the education that’s now out there and resources that are out there. He’s older, he’s 73 now, he’s from a different generation that had a different kind of expectation of what a parent would do.

So that, I think is important, and it’s very hard, but the advice that I’ve heard of reconnecting with a child or your adult child who has been alienated from you, is to start by saying, I’m really sorry and what can I do to make it right? In your head you might say I haven’t done anything wrong, I am a victim of this, and that could be correct, but just the child hearing that and being able to say these are my grievances, often the grievances are very minor and they’re able to fade away. Whereas if you say, I can’t believe 10 years and you never responded to one of my emails, do you know how that made me feel? The kid will probably say I don’t care how that made you feel. How do you think I felt?

Emma: But it’s so powerful. I come from a long line of midwestern protestants where no one talks about shit. That’s just the culture. You do not go to any difficult place. And there’s a bazillion grievances and everybody’s got a chip on their shoulder about stuff, they’re all talking behind each other’s backs. But you face things and it’s amazing how they can dissipate. You’re talking about sometimes very deep wounds that require a lot of work, maybe some professionals come in, but I’m just hopeful. I’m so hopeful that there’s hope for us. There is so much interesting things going on. We connected through Leading Women for Shared Parenting which is Terry Brennan, who is a mutual friend of ours, it’s a guy PS, not to blow his cover. He’s doing incredible work. He’s introduced legislation and I think more than 30 states now, and it’s moving through, he’s getting shared parenting as the default visitation schedule in the majority of states. It’s happening quickly. It’s quiet work, but it’s important and it’s changing millions of families.

Shared parenting legislation in 30 states

Ginger: Definitely.

Emma: But there’s still so much damage right now, and that’s what you’re addressing with your film.

Ginger: Right. What we’re finding is when kids are denied a relationship with one of their parents, and by extension, their extended family, and what my film is specifically focusing on are the siblings. In a lot of cases, one child is alienated from a parent but the other isn’t, so then their loyalties are split. One goes with one parent, one goes with the other, or in a lot of cases there are step siblings, blended families, and they’re completely prevented from seeing each other. This creates such a huge psychic wound on the kids. What’s interesting is talking to kids, maybe it’s a sign of the times, but they see it and they understand how traumatized they are by this. They have PTSD, they cut themselves, they engage in risky behavior, they look for love in all the wrong places, they begin to smoke at early ages, they can’t finish high school. All of these poor health outcomes, but what the research is also showing is that it’s not just these emotional problems which we can kind of guess, but when children are exposed to trauma over long periods of time their stress levels rise, their cortisol rise, and then they’re more at risk later in life for diabetes, hypertension, cancer, because their cells begin to break down. By reconnecting, we can begin to repair this damage.

One thing that I’m very concerned about, which is why I love the work that you’re doing on this issue and encouraging people to open up their hearts and to bring in love, even if it’s imperfect and conflictive sometimes, is that a lot times when kids reach out for help and say what can I do? Whenever my dad calls I just get so nervous and I cry, and this happened to me. I hang up the phone and I have a crying fit for two days and can’t get out of bed. Most people would say, well then you shouldn’t talk to your dad if that’s your reaction. I think what we need to start saying in society is, what did your dad do? The response is, he’s just really, really bad and he abandoned me and mom. I think we have to say, well maybe you should talk to him and work through it. There’s a big difference, because often these reactions when a child is completely brainwashed against a parent, are so visceral, that when people see it they say, well, of course, cut them out of your life. I think we should encourage people to bring that parent back in, on healthy terms, and not everyone will have this wonderful, beautiful relationship, but it is really healing.

“As a society we need to start valuing these relationships a little more and get rid of the idea that family should be perfect.”

One thing for me, which I’m so surprised that my space as a documentary film maker is family because as you know someone in my early 20s I was so not involved in family at all. This is not where I thought I would end up being. In the end, it is so healing to be able to have a relationship with your family. It’s also so sad, and we accept it too easily when people will just say I don’t talk to my sister because we had a fight and it’s been 10 years. I think as a society we need to start valuing these relationships a little more.

Also, get rid of this idea that family is perfect and that the family worth having is this perfect Norman Rockwell painting. Families now are blended, they’re messy, but that’s where they come from. They’re also great to learn what not to repeat because if you don’t really accept that, I feel like you’re doomed to repeat it. One thing that we’re seeing, and we see this with people we’re interviewing with the film, but also with celebrities who I won’t name, but people can probably guess who they are, this goes generation to generation. If a parent cuts the other parent out of their kid’s life, that kid I would say in my experience, I don’t want to give a percentage but it’s a very high likelihood that one of two things are going to happen. When they’re a parent they’re going to be cut out of their kid’s life, or they’re going to cut the other parent out of their kid’s life.

It’s just how generational this is and how this repeats is amazing. Often you’ll see people who say my mom didn’t let me see my dad when I was a kid and now I’m with my dad and it’s great. But, I married this woman and now I can’t see my daughter. It’s this wound that can’t be healed. Or it’s the other way too. The other thing I’m seeing, and I know you talk a lot about blended families is people who get remarried and they get remarried to people who also can’t see their kids because they feel like they’re the only ones who can understand. I’ve now met a lot of couples where both of them are alienated from their children. That’s how they bond.

Emma: It’s like the trauma like you met in a support group. People, that meet in rehab, right? A lot of great success stories of couples that met in rehab. So, I’m just going to offer an interesting anecdote. I have to have this woman on my show. I connected with her a couple years ago, and she was in the middle of going through a divorce. She had three little kids, she’d been a stay at home mom, no income, and her husband cheated. I think he got the other woman pregnant, she had another kid, and this woman that I know, she’s just so angry. She’s like, “He’s going to have to pay me all this alimony and I don’t want him to see the kids.” She was livid. She was in the middle of it and if you’ve been through it, you know that spot.

Fast forward two and a half years or so now, she went and got her real estate license and she’s killing it. She just turned her financial situation around. She posted pictures in my Facebook group. She and the other woman, who was still with her ex, with their collective brood, they had four or five little kids between the two of them, they went to some amusement park with these little kids. Now they’re friends, and they just got over it. They’re like okay, whatever, we’re just going to do this. It’s possible. I’m just telling you, it is possible. It’s a very humbling experience. You might not find a lot of support out there.

That’s something really negative I see. There’s this assumption that all of your friends and family are going to hate the other person. It doesn’t have to be like that. These are all these big and small decisions we can all be making in our own lives, in our extended lives, encouraging our loved ones to reach out, support each other. We can all be little activists in our own way.

Ginger: We can, because there’s this huge message of, get him for everything he has. Take everything he has. What we’re doing with the film Erasing Family is also putting a focus on the court system, the way it’s setup now it’s just adversarial. With the names, your last name, his last name, with the verses in the middle. Which to me, is insane. It encourages this. Most people when they divorce they’re able to do it without going to court, but those that do, they can be stuck for years and spend tons of money, wipe out the college funds, their houses, everything. Because lawyers, and the people involved in the court system, they make more money the longer these cases go forward, which is why, as you mentioned before, the bar associations are often against shared parenting laws, even though most people support them, because a divorce case that goes on for 10 years, the famous custody battle, that’s a money maker. We really have to change the way family law is practiced, to say that there’s no winner and loser in family court. Right now, if a lawyer says, file first, make a false accusation of abuse—

Emma: Which happens every day. That is not a weird anomalistic thing that you just talked about. There is a great statistic, I should look it up, but that first of all restraining orders are equal. Claims of domestic violence are equal 50/50 men and women. Two, the number of restraining orders in domestic violence claims right around the time of filing a divorce spike.

I’m going to say those both again because those were surprising to me. They’re so important to this discussion. Domestic violence charges are split equal 50/50 men and women and two, the number of restraining orders in domestic violence charges spike around the time of marital separation. And that is a tough situation because domestic violence is underreported and overreported at the same moment. It’s very tricky.

Ginger: It is, but also what people don’t understand is that restraining orders, they’re granted because somebody says, I’m afraid of the other person. You don’t need to prove that the other person is actually doing something. Then the other problem with restraining orders is that when somebody is actually violent, a piece of paper does not protect you. So, the way we deal with domestic violence is completely crazy. I looked at this a lot in our film in Argentina, Erasing Dad, we looked a lot at the domestic violence industry, and we called it that because they collect accusations. Anyone can go in and accuse anyone of anything. It can be because they got yelled at, because emotional abuse, all this stuff. The people that are in these horrible situations, there’s someone that’s trying to kill them, all they can offer them is a restraining order.

In Argentina what we found is that the women who were killed by their partners, and I say, women, because that’s what makes the news, they often had 15 to 30 restraining orders filed. What is interesting, and I’m not doing this as part of my film because it’s another topic, there are models out there that are more effective, which is, you identify who actually is violent, which you can do because these people are often violent in other circumstances. They have guns, there’s more proof. It’s not like they’re just violent with this one person, they tend to have a history. Putting your resources onto that person, and there have been programs that have been very successful because it’s not just a restraining order, but offering the victim a lot of protection, and often then, the person who is violent will say, okay, I want help because I have a sickness and I don’t want to live like this. They see that there’s no way that they can be violent against the other person because there’s this kind of community of support.

The people who are doing this found it’s only about one to two percent of the accusations that they get really need this type of— But that’s the problem with family court. We have this system that’s clogged, of people making accusations, which are often just kind of silly, for lack of a better term, and the people who need the help, the families who are in crisis, they don’t get it. That to me is the real tragedy, because the courts and all of these laws like restraining orders, or being able to remove someone from the home, were invented for a reason, but now they’re applied as a way to win more money and more time with custody. That’s the tragedy. They were invented for these very rare, but very horrible extreme cases, but they can’t be used because someone called you a name in an argument, so they’re now removed from the home and they have a restraining order. I’m not making this up, I’ve seen restraining orders that say for 50 years, no contact with me or the kids. It’s just like, for what?

Hurt feelings are not a reason for an order of protection

Emma: Because you got your feelings hurt.

Ginger: Yes, and that’s the big tragedy. The courts are clogged up, and there’s some unscrupulous professionals who use this to make more money by prolonging the suffering. It’s the kids who pay the price in the end, because they’re denied a loving relationship so someone could get some more child support, some more alimony, and some lawyer could make a lot of money.

Emma: The kids are definitely suffering, and then the estranged parent is suffering. I would say the parent who is perpetrating this is suffering too, because how many times a day are you in your head angry to justify this big shit show that you’ve created or co-created. I mean, nobody is purely a victim, or purely a perpetrator, it takes two. It is such a toxic, negative, perpetual place to be that nothing good can come out of it any of this.

Give us a plug for your film. You’re doing a fundraiser, you’re already having incredible success. I never bring people on that are just starting a fundraiser, because that’s bologna. You have got tons of momentum. You’re doing an event, by the time this airs it will have passed. I’m speaking at your event fundraising, but please, donate to our cause, tell us about it.

Ginger: It’s very easy, you can make a tax deductible donation by going to erasingfamily.org We have raised to date, about $75,000 for the production of the film. We’re a little below our halfway mark. We’re also, in addition to crowdfunding, we’re looking for more traditional sources like grants and funds, but what is really key to me is just the outpouring of support that we’ve had about 20 people who I’ve never met donate $1,000 a piece because they’re affected by this issue. Also, it’s an issue that doesn’t get a lot of coverage, unfortunately. That’s why I think the crowdfunding and the donations are so important because it’s something where a lot of media outlets don’t want to cover this because they’re so afraid of siding with the wrong parent and being bamboozled. Which is why our film doesn’t say, well who is the better parent, it’s that this system isn’t helping the kids who need a relationship with both of their parents and their entire families. It’s not about who’s to blame, who’s better, who’s the victim. It’s about how can we help families who are in crisis heal so that this pain doesn’t get passed down to the next generation and we don’t have this generation of traumatized kids.

Let me tell you when I interviewed kids at Colorado State University, and I’m going to do more at different universities, me and my crew were just blown away by horrible stories of kids who would say stuff like, 51 percent of the custody and dad had 49 percent.

Why women get 51% visitation and custody

Emma: Well I’ll tell you why, 51 so that she could get more child support and that’s bullshit. I’m here to tell you that is disgusting.

Ginger: Exactly. And then they have post traumatic stress disorder in all these horrible situations, and all these kids are coming saying family court failed me, family court failed my family, it made it worse. That’s what our emphasis is on and not who is the better parent. It’s about how can a bad situation, which a breakup and a divorce is never happy, how can we move it to a good equilibrium?

Emma: Yes, stability.

Ginger: Yes.

Emma: You said media under reports it, I have written a bunch of times on different outlets, and every time I do, I write about shared parenting, media should because it goes bananas. It gets tons of traffic. Hate me outlets of the world, you can make so much money if you write about this. Like you said, there’s pent up demand for this message.

You know what’s so interesting? Terry Brennan, our friend, he’s so smart. He’s a dude, okay, his name is Terry, you might not know that but he is a full-on man. He’s a father who his own story is he got a lousy custody deal, visitation deal, changed his own story, fought for himself and his family and now is fighting for others. He’s my favorite unsung hero in the world and I’m not joking about that. Anyway, he made a really good point. We named this, Leading Women for Shared Parenting. Think back in history, women got the vote in the 20s when men got on board with suffrage. Civil rights started to move when white politicians and white activists got on board. We need, I’m seeing this, and I think you’re seeing this too, it’s women whose brothers, new husbands and boyfriends, colleagues, friends, whatever, when their male friend are getting screwed, it’s the women that are standing up and screaming often the loudest about these things. Whatever, I don’t care who it is, whatever is going to move the needle.

Ginger: Definitely. We’re all in this together.

Emma: We are. And I think this is it. This mainstream media that’s going to hit theaters, it starts the conversation, you’re gonna get press, it’s going to empower people in their own lives. It’s such important work that you’re doing. Thank you.

Ginger: Well, thank you.

Emma: Alright, so check it out. One more plug, give us one more plug where people can go.

Ginger: Erasingfamily.org We’re also on Twitter, and Instagram @erasingfamily, and on Facebook Erasing Family, we already have 12,000 followers, and they’re always sharing stories and also if someone, unfortunately, suffering this problem, please send us via our social media a photo that says #ErasedMom, #ErasedDad, #ErasedSister, #ErasedBrother. We also have a public service announcement that Tamra Judge of Real Housewives of Orange County and she’s having trouble seeing her daughter after divorce. It’s just one more outlet that we’re trying to bring our message to. We’re interested in getting more celebrities involved and making this an issue that everybody’s concerned about because it, unfortunately, affects pretty much everybody who has a family.

Emma: It does, and it’s changing our culture overall, about gender and gender roles. It just trickles into all parts of life. Alright, Ginger Gentile, erasingfamily.org Thank you.

Ginger: Thank you, Emma.

emma johnson family
Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list. Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer. A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

6 Comments

  1. Erika on June 20, 2017 at 6:46 pm

    This article and podcast was the slap of reality I needed! It made me realize how I was putting my dislike for my kids’ dads ahead of the importance of them having relationships and quality time with their fathers. I no longer make it about my emotions but the needs of my kids. Thanks Emma!

    • Emma on June 8, 2018 at 8:57 am

      Erika – this is so beautiful, thank you so much.

  2. LaVerne on August 9, 2017 at 8:45 pm

    This doesn’t affect only fathers, mothers are also victims

    • Emma on June 8, 2018 at 8:57 am

      Oh yes, you are correct! In fact, the research finds that it is about 50-50 men/women.

  3. Nick on August 17, 2017 at 9:37 am

    Usually you do your research, but this guest got one by you big time. You said “Restraining orders and domestic violence charges spike around the time of marital separation.” And your tone was incredulous as you repeated that statement. Then instead of properly unpacking that statistic, the discussion that immediately followed suddenly went into tangents about cases in Argentina, and the filmmaker’s personal belief that faking abuse claims are rampant in order to get more money, and “people making silly accusations” — and missed the real point. It seemed your guest had very little understanding of actual abuse dynamics, and you didn’t check her on that. Your guest was too into the fakers vs the real victims if abuse and it was a false dichotomy that glossed over the many degrees and forms of abuse. The reality is family court does not care about any type of emotional or financial abuse, but only sometimes cares about provable physical abuse, and even then the abuser still gets joint custody more often than not.

    In a great many cases, physical abuse starts once the conflict is out in the open and a separation is declared. People are at greatest risk of harm when leaving relationships– that’s such a well documented fact of abuse that it’s not even a debatable point.

    Please do some research into separation violence.

    • Emma on June 8, 2018 at 8:59 am

      I believe we addressed that domestic violence is real and under-reported. It is also abused by fake victims, which only hurts real victims. It is complicated and we did not even attempt to suss out all the nuance in a 40-min discussion which was focused on another topic. Thank you for listening and chiming in.

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