Allow us to introduce Joseph Sorge. Sorge is the Writer/Director of the powerful documentary film: Divorce Corp. Narrated by Dr. Drew Pinsky, this movie spotlights the inequities and problems with the American Family Law System.
Through an examination of influential cases as well as fascinating interviews with divorce attorneys, mediators, judges and litigants, Divorce Corp seeks to make a positive difference. One of the film’s goals is to raise awareness about the dangerous and harmful ways our legal system is often comprised by the profit motive. It is meant to shine a light on truth as a beginning step towards reform so that families and children can receive the compassion and justice they deserve.
Sorge was gracious to give us an interview about his film. He explains why he made it, what he learned and what it can teach us about our family law system.
Q: Would you please give us information on your background and how you came to make this film?
A: I came from the medical side, training as an M.D., but never went into clinical practice. I became a medical scientist and inventor, started a biotechnology company, and eventually took it public in 2004. In 2007, I sold the company and transitioned to TV and film.
I became interested in family law after spending many days sitting in family court as I went through a family law process myself. Although my outcome was not as negative as many of the victims featured in my movie, I witnessed terrible mistreatment of citizens by the family courts. I also witnessed favoritism between the judges and lawyers.
I used to believe that judges were neutral, well-intentioned people. But as I witnessed the way that the judges treated average citizens in their courtrooms and the favoritism that the judges showered on lawyers, I developed doubts.
This spurred me to hire a researcher to investigate the family courts. Some of the shocking truths that we discovered were featured in the Divorce Corp movie.
Q: What is your documentary film about?
A: The movie is about the family courts and the laws that they adjudicate. We discovered a $50 billion per year industry built around family law processes, including divorce and custody challenges. The numbers were shocking. You can feed every school child a free lunch in all of North and South America every day with that amount of money. Or we could develop 50 new medicines each year.
Q: What are the major problems with our family law system and why do you think we have these problems?
A: There are several problems, but the most fundamental flaw is that we use the adversarial system in our family courts. The adversarial system came from English law, where each side would hurl damaging accusations at the other side in front of the king.
The king viewed this as a form of entertainment. Our family courts are structured much the same way with one person, the judge, deciding whose accusations are more believable.
Family courts have been deemed by our judiciary as “courts of equity”, not courts of law. This means that citizens are not entitled to a jury as you would be in civil courts of law. You also do not have the right to a speedy trial, a free transcript, or a lawyer if you cannot afford one. There is little oversight, and the judges can accept campaign contributions from the lawyers who appear in their courtrooms.
The family code is far too complex for the average person. It’s over 2,000 pages of small print on thin paper. Very few people have the time or background to understand it; and so it almost guarantees employment for tens of thousands of lawyers. Since these lawyers charge by the hour, often charging $200 to $800 per hour, they are not incentivized to move your case along quickly. Divorce ends up being one of the top causes of bankruptcy.
The courts have the right to choose one parent over the other. This is one of the most destructive powers the courts have. In fact, our Federal regulations state that child support shall be based on the earnings and income of the ‘non-custodial’ parent, which means that there is a presumption that one parent will be chosen by the courts to be more dominant in the child’s life than the other parent.
This represents very antiquated thinking that probably violates the equal protections clause in the Constitution – however, the Supreme Court has yet to take up a case that would test this.
Q: What did you learn while making your film that surprised you the most about our family law system?
A: What surprised me most is that the collusion between judges and lawyers is widely accepted amongst the professionals. Lawyers are allowed to make significant campaign contributions to judges, as are the lawyers’ family members.
Lawyers can host fund-raisers for judges or offer them positions upon retirement. There are too many ways in which lawyers can influence judges unfairly. I believe that this undermines the potential for true justice and leads to many imbalanced and unfair outcomes.
Q: After your experience making this documentary, what do you see as the first steps towards fixing our family law system?
A: I would reform our family laws to mirror family laws found in the Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden). The United States has a far higher divorce ratio than these Scandinavian countries, even though in those countries you can become divorced simply by sending a form in to the government.
I think the reason we have a higher divorce ratio is that we reward people financially for getting divorced. Our family courts award generous and sometime excessive amounts of alimony and child support. And these amounts have been growing far faster than inflation over the last 20 years.
Our judges also often make the passive party in the divorce (the defendant or respondent, depending on which state you are in) pay the legal costs of the aggressor. We tempt people to file for divorce because they could potentially end up receiving a big check each month, get the majority of the allotted time with the children, get the house, and have all of their legal fees paid.
The Scandinavians don’t do that. Alimony ends on the day the divorce is finalized, typically 6 months after one of the parties files for the divorce; and child support is limited to the needs of the child, not a percentage of income. There is no financial incentive to get divorced in Scandinavia and as a result, they have a lower divorce ratio.
In the Unites States, child support can amount to far more than it costs to raise a child and the recipient parent has no obligation to spend it on the child or to produce receipts. Thus we hold out a reward that encourages Americans to get divorced.
Q: What are the effects of the divorce court system on the following groups: children, parents (and adults who have suffered through their parents’ divorce when they were children)?
A: Children suffer a lot, not just because their parents are breaking up, but because the family courts suck the children into the process. The court officials speak platitudes about keeping children sheltered from the process and doing what is in the best interests of the child. Then they go ahead and order custody evaluations that probe the children for dirt about their parents.
Judges will often hire an attorney for the children. The attorney then interrogates the children about their parents and their home situation. What child is not going to get the idea that some legal war is being waged when they are given their own attorney?
To add salt to the wounds, the judges will order the parents to pay for the costs of the child’s attorney, yet the parents will not be allowed to examine or question the attorney’s invoices. The judge approves the invoices of the attorney whom the judge hires. Then, to add another level of absurdity to the situation, the attorney who has been hired by the judge can make campaign contributions to that judge!
Talk about conflicts of interest!
I think all of this insider-dealing, unfair treatment, and reward for the aggressor harms the parents’ relationship as well. The adversarial system, by its very nature, causes parents to become more and more unfavorably disposed toward the other parent.
When someone is leveling accusations and exaggerated opinions about you in a public forum and you are told that you may lose your children if you do not do the same, the natural outcome is for people to throw mud and end up hating each other at the end of the process.
That’s bad for the parents and bad for the children. The whole system is a cesspool of negative energy.
Q: What can a parent do to help their child if they are going through a divorce?
A: Never go to family court. Resolve everything with a mediator and let the mediator take the joint settlement agreement into court to get the rubber stamp from the judge. Don’t value money more than your children.
If you are greedy and fight for money in family court, it will spill over to your children and someday you will regret it.
Q: Are there any helpful resources you could recommend for parents or children going through the process of divorce?
A: Richard Warshak wrote a book called Divorce Poison. Also, there are many books on mediation as an alternative to the adversarial system.
You can buy the film and learn more by visiting: http://www.divorcecorp.com/