In the U.S. alone, 22 million parents are being "erased" from their children’s lives. In her new documentary Erasing Family, filmmaker Ginger Gentile, who is also the deputy executive director of the National Parents Organization (NPO), set out to tell the stories of several parents and children who were torn apart as a result of a desperately broken family court system.
What Inspired Erasing Family
Gentile, who herself is a child of divorce, was living in Argentina when she made a film in 2014 called Erasing Dad, which exposes the discrimination fathers face when they want to be in their children's lives following divorce. The film lead to legal changes in Argentina that allowed parents to share joint custody. Upon returning to the U.S., she wanted to make a follow-up film that would look at erased fathers and mothers and the impact on children.
"I made a post on Facebook asking for people to share their stories, and I was overwhelmed by the responses," Gentile says. "I'm still overwhelmed by people reaching out to this day. These people have no where to turn." In family court, parents aren't provided with legal or psychological support. Many are left feeling like no one cares about their struggle to see their child. "They're told to just get over it, forget about their children, or that they'll come back when they're 18," Gentile notes.
This lead the filmmaker to, as she notes in the documentary, "tell the stories of the ignored victims of family court: the children."
Erasing Family follows the stories of several children, all of whom are now over 18, who reunited with their erased father or mother.
What Reunification Looks Like
One such parent is Dizzy Lerner, a California father who was cut out of his daughters' lives but recently reunited with the younger of the two Ashlynn. "We hadn’t talked since she was 14 or 15," he says. "She had reached out, and we had a little communication via Facebook and Skype, and then my ex and her stepfather found out that we were talking. They listened in on the convo, and she said, 'I love you, Daddy,' and they pulled the plug. That was the last conversation we had for a number of years."
But when Ashlynn turned 18, she followed through on a promise she had made Lerner. "Her 18th birthday rolls around, and she shows up, and that was the first time I'd seen her since she was 10."
The two took a photo together, which Ashlynn posted to Facebook, alongside a message encouraging other kids of erased parents to remain hopeful about reunification. The post went viral, and soon, Ashlynn and Lerner connected with Gentile about the film.
Lerner's motivation for putting his story out there: "It's about the children. I had a right to be a parent. I was never a bad father, and the children have a right to have both of their parents in their lives. Unless there's a real safety issue, I don't see why we don't have straight-up, fair, 50/50 parenting laws in place."
The Film's Goals
Promote legislation that encourages and supports shared parenting, which is defined as an arrangement where both parents have equal responsibility for raising their child(ren).
"Shared parenting has overwhelming support in the polls, and the science backs this up," Gentile says. "But only Kentucky and Arizona have shared parenting laws in the U.S." That's because there's a lot of money in keeping the system the way it is. After all, the more time divorce attorneys spend on a case, the more billable hours. That said, some lawyers are onboard with change, Gentile explains. But bar associations are lobbying to block shared parenting legislation.
Inspire erased children to reunite with their parents or to reach out to them.
"It's difficult but important to have a relationship with both sides of your family," she notes. "You can love your parent or hate your parent, but you should never erase them. Pretending they don’t exist is very damaging." She also points out that many children who held negative beliefs about their erased parent come to find that mom or dad could be "a great source of support and love in their lives" once they reunified.
Highlight this issue as a national crisis taking a major toll on the wellness of kids.
"The support, love, and kindness that was erased from children's lives—for sometimes their entire childhood—is a public health crisis," Gentile notes. "We're denying kids a loving parent, and if the parent needs some help, we aren’t getting them that help, we're just excluding them from the family forever."
Makeover the family court system.
To that end, Gentile hopes that raising awareness and highlighting erased families' stories will lead to concrete change in the family court system. "We want to show people who make the laws why the system needs to change, why we need to move away from an adversarial system to one that encourages and promotes shared parenting and giving parents the tools they need to accomplish that," she says.
How to Support the Movement
Although the idea that children could lose complete contact with one parent after divorce has been normalized, it is anything but normal, and it's harmful, Gentile says. The more we call this out, the better for parents and children everywhere.
While the film won't be available on streaming platforms until late 2020, Gentile encourages anyone who wants to get involved to host a community screening. Visit ErasingFamily.org for more information.