Family Court: Where Lawyers Live Large and Families Die Slowly

After splitting with Sean Penn, actress Robin Wright said, “Divorce in and of itself, and with children, is devastating.” Wright and Penn were once one of Hollywood’s most successful couples. They had two children and were living lives most of us could only dream of. But the pain of divorce and family court left scars on them just the same.

Even moonwalking astronaut Buzz Aldrin was devastated by divorce: “During the divorce process, I lived alone and tended to get extremely down on myself.” Aldrin was the second human to set foot on the moon. The pain of divorce and of that process in family court can be so devastating that it has the power to take down one human history’s greatest heroes.

Every year, there are about 790,000 divorces in the United States. You can do the math until you’re numb. It adds up to millions of hours in court and an estimated $50 billion a year spent to split families apart. This impacts more than just the two people who are going their separate ways. The children become battlegrounds when love is a battlefield.

We all know someone who has been through the ordeal of family court. We all either have been through it ourselves or have seen friends or family members deal with divorce. The impact on men, especially, is staggering. In the United Kingdom, for example, men who experience divorce are eight times more likely to commit suicide than divorced women.

Why? One answer could be the fact that the vast majority of fathers lose some or all custody of their children. Their character may be assaulted in open court. But there are likely many more complex answers, as family court is often a Pandora’s Box. Once opened, unforeseen troubles tend to pour out.

At the extremes, those troubles may even include mass shootings. James Densley, founder of the Violence Project at the National Institute of Justice, has studied all mass shootings since the 1966 atrocity at the University of Texas in Austin. According to Densley, nearly all mass shooters have a few things in common, and first among those is deep childhood trauma.

“They’ve experienced trauma, abuse, and are living in very, sort of difficult circumstances,” said Densley. “We’re talking about the suicides of parents, we’re talking about neglect and abuse within the household.”

A particularly difficult collapse of a family, combined with isolation from one or both parents either through court action or suicide, could become a triggering trauma.

Filmmaker Vede Seeterram is raising money for a film to investigate this phenomenon and many other questions swirling around family court and the industry supporting it. It’s called “Man Down! A Closer Look at Family Court.”

Despite the implications of the title, Seeterram says it is not a male-centered or “men’s rights” film. It’s a film about what happens and who makes bank—and who makes decisions and why—when families wind up in court facing off against each other.

Who wins when one parent, on the advice of an attorney, falsely claims the other is abusive or absent or in some way negligent?

Who wins when courts rule a man to be legally the father of a child to whom he is not biologically related? This has happened, and in one infamous California case, the court persisted in its ruling until forced to abandon it by the state supreme court.

Does family court encourage and incentivize splitting spouses to smear one another in order to gain leverage over property, wealth, and children?

Family court, according to many Seeterram has interviewed for the film, is a gauntlet of psychological and financial difficulties that could break even the strongest person.

Seeterram already has interviewed dozens of witnesses to family court issues. He hopes to raise $192,000 (or about $250,721 Canadian) via Kickstarter to finish the film. His goal is to get it placed where as many people as possible will see it—Netflix or Amazon Prime, ideally. On either streaming service, potentially millions may see the film and know more about what really happens to families in family court.

“Divorce is horrible,” actress Andie McDowell once said. “I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

Neither would anyone who has ever been a part of or witnessed a family court proceeding—unless you’re inside the $50 billion divorce industry.

Photo: Enis Aksoy/Getty Images

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