I’m Tom Lemons, and this is the Ayo and Iken Report. Currently, there are over 25 million parents erased from their children in North America alone. That according to Erasing Families Impact Campaign and presented in a new documentary, Erasing Family. Today, we have Director Ginger Gentile all the way from Los Angeles, California, who will tell us more about the film and the trauma that families endure when children are forced to erase one of their parents.
Thanks so much for having me on today.
Thank you so much for joining us. So we recently had an opportunity to view your film, Erasing Family. Now this is something that is… It’s not the first project you have done regarding dysfunctional families, the breakup of children from parents, is it?
Erasing Family is my third feature documentary, but the second one on the topic of divorce and how it impacts children and families. The first film I did is called Erasing Dad, Borrando a Papá, which was released in Argentina in 2014. I lived in Argentina for 13 years, and when I was there I saw there was a lot of fathers who couldn’t see their kids after divorce. And that’s because the law in Argentina said the custody automatically goes to the mother.
And after Erasing Dad was released, it was the most talked about film that year in Argentina, and it caused laws to be changed. First of all, the gender bias in the law was removed, so now fathers and mothers had equal rights to their children. But also, it allowed for the possibility of joint custody, which before the film came out, it was not an option in Argentina. Judges began to make different decisions, and most importantly, kids began to see the film and to begin to reach out to their erased parents.
And when I came back to the United States in 2015, I knew I had to make a follow-up film. What I didn’t realize is I would encounter so many mothers who couldn’t see their kids, who had lost custody. And also that the kids themselves, sometimes as young as the age of seven, were posting online, making their own YouTube videos, talking about how they couldn’t see a sibling or a parent due to the family courts and how this was traumatizing them. And that’s when I realized Erasing Family had to be told from the children’s point of view.
Very interesting. So when you came back from South America and began your research here in North America, you found out that this was not just a gender issue. The children are suffering and being traumatized, the mothers and fathers are being traumatized from the separation. Is that what you discovered?
So what I discovered when I put up a Facebook post… And this is actually how the film starts. I put up a Facebook post asking for people to tell their stories. I get overwhelmed by all the stories coming back to me. Some had known about my work with Erasing Dad. And one thing I discovered was over half the people contacting me were mothers. That being said, statistically, fathers are more likely to lose contact with their children after divorce. But the fact that so many moms reached out to me shows this is a growing problem. And at the root, it’s not a problem about gender or gender bias, it’s a problem about the system and money, and how the courts are adversarial. And what I like to say, the parent who is most likely to win is the parent who has more resources and is willing to fight dirty.
And that’s not a good system for our children. We should be encouraging both parents to be there for their kids. And we should be encouraging good behavior and getting along and healing, not fighting tooth and nail. We always have to remember a custody case is by its very nature different from a civil case, a lawsuit, or a criminal case. We shouldn’t be looking to find blame, but how to help put a fractured family back together. So maybe not right away, but in six months, a year, two years, everyone can sit down and enjoy, I’m saying this because it’s coming up soon, a Thanksgiving dinner, a holiday dinner together.
And our systems lead to the opposite. It’s designed for each parent to say the worst possible thing they can say about the other parent, which makes them co-parenting afterwards almost impossible because there’s no buy-in and a lot of resentment. And the kids know that this is going on, they’re often made to pick sides, and just the tension, because, I was talking to a lawyer last night. What do lawyers say to their clients? “Don’t talk to the other side, have all communication go through the lawyers.” How do you co-parent if you can’t talk to the other co-parent?
So what often happens is the kid becomes the messenger going back and forth. That puts a lot of stress on the child. And they just want to get away from this situation, which can cause them to bind their loyalty to just one parent or, in a lot of cases that we tend not to talk about, as they get older reject both parents entirely and say, “I don’t want anything to do with this stressful-
“I’m not going to talk to anybody anymore.”
So this could cause a lifetime of damage for this child from the very early start, which is horrific. I mean this is terrible for a child already to go through a divorce, even if it goes amicably and everyone is happy at the end. But for any of these other issues to arise for one parent or both are playing the pawn with this child, this is just absolutely disastrous for the future of this child, right?
It is disastrous when a child is put in the middle of a high conflict divorce. And we see that in the film Erasing Family from the kid’s own words and perspectives. So we have a girl and unfortunately she’s not the only girl I’ve talked to, ended up cutting herself, drug use, looking for love in all the wrong places.
Sometimes these kids are very successful in school, but then they tend to not be successful in building relationships, stress relief. And the most disturbing piece of information, but it’s also helpful information, is now we have scientific research that shows that toxic, prolonged stress in childhood, it had very negative outcomes for adults. This is called the Adverse Childhood Experience Study, the ACES study, and this is done by the CDC. And not only if you have toxic stress are you more likely to commit suicide, have addictive behaviors, be depressed, but you’re also more likely to have heart disease, diabetes, cancer even.
But here’s the good news. Toxic stress as a child is not a sentence.
First of all, it can be reversed by teaching children coping skills, giving them access to therapy, mental health services. But also it can be reversed by removing the source of the trauma. So in this case it would mean reuniting with the erased parent and the erased half of their family, we can reverse and remove the trauma. And what the Erasing Family documentary shows is that unfortunately these kids, young adults, are now left to do this on their own. And they try and these meetings are often bittersweet because these children who are damaged are healing their own families with no help or support and have never been to therapy or talked to a social worker. And they’re trying to figure this out. But their model of family engagement is a toxic one.
So you are saying basically the methodology right now is that the courts are separating kids, which is the opposite of what should be doing. I mean barring any physical or severe abuse, that’s obvious, right? But bringing families together and trying to fix it that way is better than what the courts have been doing for decades is just separate them, right?
So what we need is to have a system, and I would say it’s not an adversarial court system, for when families are in trouble, they can get help. And not a system, which seeks to assign blame, and seeks to find out whose the slightly better parent. You have to remember what family courts do is that they take away custody, they don’t grant custody. When you are married or living together, you are assumed to have custody.
So the only way that custody can be taken away is for the courts to decide that one parent is better. And there’s no scientific basis for these decisions. The courts do not have to give any good reasons for these decisions. And these decisions are very harmful because we get a snapshot of a family and in that moment a child’s future can be decided forever. And the worst possible scenario is when the child, him or herself is asked, “Who do you want to live with? Who do you prefer?” In some states a child as young as twelve can decide to never have a relationship with the other parent again.
So they’re being told to dislike another parent, or they’re angry at a parent at that moment, that means no more contact forever in a lot of cases. And children do not realize the decisions that they’re making because they’re children and they should never be asked.
Probably the biggest talked about issue at the screening that we attended, and it was a huge discussion in your film, which was about the child enforcement and child support. And especially there was quite a bit on the story about Dizzy, I think was his name. I don’t remember his full name.
But that was when he went in to make his final payment. That was pretty profound moment to know that he had just paid off something like 25 or $35,000 in back child support that was all fees and interest, which was just unbelievable. And I don’t think society really knows that. And even here in state of Florida, I haven’t looked at the numbers yet. We have, there are fees and I’m not sure the percentage, but every time someone… I mean the courts, they force you to pay through our Department of Revenue here in Florida. If you go to court, that’s where you’re going to pay it.
When I started Erasing Family, I didn’t want to talk about child support at all because I feel like a lot of people just are like, “Oh you need to support your kids.” Which I agree with, kids need support. What I’m putting out about the child support system is that the child support, it’s not often going to the child. And that’s because the state takes out a lot of fees and charges a lot of interest in cases where you don’t pay. This interest compounds and accumulates. You can lose your driver’s license or go to jail for not paying, which then means you lose your job or you can’t get to work because you don’t have a driver’s license.
There’s this kind of endless cycle. And a lot parents… I mean, the case of Dizzy, he literally signs away his parental rights to get out of paying child support, only to find out that that debt never went away. And when he says the child support isn’t [inaudible 00:11:00] my kids, he’s not saying because the mom is spending it. I talked with the mom, she never saw any of this. It went all to the state to some fund so they can do pothole repair. You don’t know where it goes.
Then also, if you earn welfare, it’s the craziest thing. And welfare payments are very low in this. Maybe $200 a month, $400. If you have an ex who is paying $1,000 in child support, you don’t see any of it. You only get the welfare payments and then for the rest of your life, all of that child support goes to pay back welfare.
That is incredible. These are things that people need to know and thanks to the work you’re doing in the film that you’ve done, which was extraordinary, and I hope you continue to do more of these. I do have one last question. I know that we’re running out of time. You said you had received some pushback from parents who were actually upset with you, who were being… Alienated is the basic term.
But had been separated from a child and they’re mad at you. Can you tell me quickly what happened with that?
Erasing Family’s very fortunate to have over 25,000 followers on social media. We have a lot of supporters. We have some, I would call, die hard fans. We had a screening Arizona, four people drove in from California. We had a screening in Chicago, three people flew in to see the film. And we have a lot of people who are ambassadors, who are putting together community screenings.
At the same time, there’s a small group of parents who’ve been following or even supported the work of a recent family who are very upset that we are not spending time acknowledging their victim hood. And I want to be clear, you are a victim of the system, but the only behavior and thoughts that you can control are your own. You can’t control the court system. You can’t control the other parent. And you can’t control your kid. But you prepare to be ready for when your kid reunites. Because if you are not calm, collected and full of unconditional love, when your child comes back, it might be a very short-lived reunion.
And in the film, we need to remember Ashlyn, who was separated from her father before childhood reaches out because a friend says, “Reach out to him. What do you got to lose? Maybe he’s bad. But maybe he’s a wonderful person.” The alternative is wonderful. So we as a society can encourage that, even if you can’t talk to your own kids. If we all start talking to kids, eventually someone will talk to your kid. And that’s why setting up a community screening of Erasing Family, especially in university or high school where young people are, is so important and powerful. And I always tell parents, your child, if they can come back to you, they are going to have to overcome years of indoctrination, years of not knowing you and perhaps are going to become homeless, perhaps are going to lose their college fund by talking to you. That’s a huge risk.
There’s so many families in this state that are broken, hurt and broken, over these kinds of issues. So Ginger, once again, I want to thank you so much for coming on our show-
No, thank you, Tommy.
And enjoy the West Coast weather and we hope we can have you on again one day.
Thank you so much Tommy. I hope so too.
Thank you Ginger. Take care.
Such like a tug of war with who side of you to choose. I realized it was just tearing me apart.
It was always, “You’re on my side or you’re dead to me.”
The first time my dad saw me, I was in my grandma’s arms in a courtroom.
It really felt like she didn’t want anything to do with me.
It’s hard when you have to stop and think that your child wants nothing to do with you, because of what they’ve been taught.
One parent gets to be a parent and the other gets to be at best, a visitor, and at worst completely erased. And a lot of it has to do with our judicial system.
What I remember about being in court was having to lie to the judge. Sorry.
It destroys lives. It bankrupts people every day. It tears children from their homes and just so happens to be a $50 billion a year industry.
If you don’t pay your child support, you’re going to go to jail.
Walter Scott decided to bolt from his car. Court documents show he owed more than $80,000 in child support payments.
These fathers are not deadbeat, they’re dead broke.
Nothing I said mattered. None of the evidence I brought forward mattered. The judge wouldn’t even look at it.
He’s nothing like I was told he was.
If there’s 22 million adults living with this, that’s over 22 million children. And the mental health consequences are severe and long lasting.
It’s heartbreaking for me to see how many of you are dealing with this.
My dad was erased from my life.
It’s happening all over the world.
This isn’t a father’s rights issue. It’s not a mother’s rights issue. It’s a human rights issue.
My daughter’s here and I have been alienated from each other for the majority of her life. She called me and said, dad, it’s time to move home. And she came home.
If the court worked in a way where there was 50/50 custody, I’d be happier. I wouldn’t feel a void because I’ve never known a life for one parent wasn’t missing.
A new bill would make default custody 50/50.
How come? We don’t have shared parenting in the lot. It’s called special interests.
We need more clarity in law to support what is best for children, shared parenting, and this helps move in that direction.
I want to show people that it can have a happy ending.
In about 10 minutes, we’re going to leave for the courthouse so I can legally readopt my daughter.
Aida, so you just watched the film erasing family and I understand that you work in the mental health industry, is that right?
Yes, that’s correct.
What did you take away from, or what do you think was the most impactful thing from this film tonight?
The hurt in terms of how the families were just separated and it just really impacted me that there was no support system, there to help them get through that hurt. And as a mental health professional, that’s got to be first when people are going through traumatic situations, which is what divorce is, there needs to be a way for them to be able to deal with that trauma.
So we’re here with Howard Ellzey, one of the attorneys with the Ayo & Iken law firm and he just watched the film erasing family. Howard, how did it make you feel to watch this film and what did you, what’s the biggest thing that you think you’ll take away from this?
Well, the biggest thing is, naturally the hurt that the children experienced. I know that there were a few of the kids grown, at this point that were going back and reliving some of the trauma that they experienced and some of the decisions that they had to make.
Were you shocked at the numbers and the interest and the, the debt that some of these mothers, fathers, everyone that’s involved in?
Not at all. I’ve had clients come in with dire situations where, you know, maybe the department of revenue has made some error or maybe the father or the [inaudible] of the child support, just kind of sat on their rights when they get into some situation and they didn’t go and timely attend to the matters that need to be attended and they could have gotten an adjustment and they don’t. And then they come back years later and then they’re in almost irreparable damage.
Can you tell me what did you take away? What was the most impactful thing from tonight’s a documentary?
I think it was a, it hit all the real points, cause I myself was an alienated mom. So I understand. I would say the most impactful was hearing it from the children’s perspectives. I have a 17 year old daughter that was alienated. So it was very reflective of some of the issues that she dealt with.
Do you work in family law yourself?
Yes, I do.
So see this a lot then, don’t you?
Yes, basically I just, try to advise them and express the importance of how important it is for both parents to be in that child’s life and also the effects that it can have negatively on a child. Cause it has had negative effect on my daughter, So that experience has helped me a lot when I am dealing with an unreasonable parent.