There are few issues more contentious and heart-wrenching in a broken family than what happens to the children. On a personal level as well as a public policy level, parity in child support and custody is elusive.
Even the U.S. Supreme Court, when it weighed into the tangled mess of the child support program a few weeks ago, left behind a decision that did little to address the major problems. A post I wrote on the case triggered a debate among readers about how families should be better treated in court.
Tonight in D.C., one side of the argument is getting its spotlight. “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” will premier publicly with a discussion to follow at Avalon Theater in Upper Northwest Washington. It’s billed as a documentary that “tackles controversial family court issues head-on.”
After viewing an advance screener, I can safely call “Guilty” less a documentary and more a polemic. The movie consists of a series of one-sided-interviews interspersed with flashes of startling statistics about how fathers are most often cheated out of custody and overburdened by support requirements.
That said, the film, directed by civic activist Janks Morton and produced in association with the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, touches on some difficult truths. A handful of sympathetic suburban D.C. fathers who have all been unfairly treated by the family court system speak directly to the camera. Some of their stories are horrific, such as being denied visitation for years or being jailed because a hospitalization interfered with a previously sterling child support record.
Though only first names are provided for these men, there’s a good chance their stories have validity. There is certainly evidence that many men have endured injustice in the family court system. In the case that went before the Supreme Court, that father had been jailed for a year for failing to pay support even though the court never considered that he couldn’t pay.
The Justices in that case, though, heard the other side. (The ex-wife said the defendant never paid child support unless he was threatened with incarceration.) In family disputes, there’s rarely, if ever, a clear hero and villain.
In “Guilty,” the unseen and unheard mothers are the villains, as well as a few judges and the family court system as a whole.
That’s too bad. The issues raised are larger than gender. We don’t have to look too far to find mothers who have also been brutalized by family court. Remember the story of Alaina Giordano, the mother who lost custody of her children because, in part, she was stricken with cancer?
After tonight, “Guilty” will tour the country with showings and discussions in community centers, local theaters and at college campuses, said Michael McCormick, co-executive producer and the executive director of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children. “We plan to use the film as an organizing tool and follow that organization with coordinated action. We also plan to use the film as an outreach/educational vehicle to policy makers and legislators,” he said in an e-mail.
Here’s to hoping “Guilty” won’t be the last word, but the first step, on reforming family court.
Where do you stand on family court? What reforms might you propose?