The mission of AN|R Law: A Negotiation Resolution is to change the way divorce is handled in the United States while supporting equal shared parenting. We are making progress toward this mission; however, we’re also seeing that racial injustice is happening in family law cases. This is especially true when there is a lack of equal shared parenting legislation. This is a huge issue and it needs the attention of every attorney, every legal professional, and every advocate across our nation.
I was recently invited to speak on this topic during an event hosted by the Legal Aid Foundation of Tallahassee, Florida which centered on racial injustice in family law. The Annual Thunderdome Tallahassee event honors volunteer attorneys dedicated to helping Leon County in family legal matters while supporting the pursuit of equality and justice for all. During my keynote address, I focused on how we can work together to combat racial inequality. As a North Carolina based family law attorney, I founded my practice on using alternative dispute resolution methods. These processes include collaborative law, mediation, arbitration and settlement negotiation. I believe that keeping families out of a courtroom setting is the first step that we can take as society to reduce injustice in the family law system. In addition, we need to pass equal shared parenting laws in each state so we can guarantee that parents are treated with fairness, respect, and dignity. As a child of divorce, I know what it’s like to grow up without access to my father. I wrote about my personal experience in my book, The Cure for Divorce Culture. My personal story inspired me to find ways to help other families as they navigate divorce and begin their shared parenting journey.
The greatest racial injustice and injustice to low income people in America is happening with the attack on the family unit and lack of access to justice and what means the most – our children. Many times, these children are left thinking that their parent does not want to see them. But that is not true at all. The parent may be trying to get to the child, but inappropriate use of the justice system is causing alienation. This alienation affects that child’s self-image forever and can result in extreme issues. I discuss this topic in more detail in my book. I also share information on suicide, substance abuse, and depression in America’s adult children of litigated divorce.
In terms of racial injustice in the family law system across the United States, it is absolutely heartbreaking to see the issues that black parents, and all people of color, face when they step foot into a courtroom. During my presentation, I referenced data from National Parents Organization (NPO). I am honored to serve as a board member on the organization’s National Board of Directors. Together, we work to advocate and raise awareness for various matters affecting parents including child support, child custody, and parental alienation. Research conducted by NPO finds that the current child support system is poorly designed to promote children’s interests. In many states, child support policies do not promote shared parenting, which is usually in the child’s best interest. Instead, they create disincentives to shared parenting. As a family law attorney, I’ve unfortunately seen many cases when a parent isn’t given access to equal parenting – unfortunately, sometimes parents aren’t given access to the child at all. This is a painful action not only for the parent, but also for the child. Having a relationship with both parents after a separation or divorce is essential to a child’s wellbeing. You can read more about the impact that a litigated divorce has on children, including shocking statistics researching in my book, by clicking here.
It is unjust for a person to be put on child support without access to the children even if he or she tries. The two – child support and custody – should come hand-in-hand; however, in the United States Family Court System, unfortunately they don’t. That is one of my proposed reforms for the court system. I don’t believe it is fair that a parent can go to a Department of Social Services and get child support without ever addressing custody. Oftentimes, they custodial parent denies the other parent time with the child. In addition, when we look at demographics, including people of color and all races, the parent unable to access the child cannot afford attorney fees and since custody is a civil law case. This means that, unlike a criminal case, an attorney cannot be appointed and it often makes access to their own child almost impossible.
When a parent is not able to afford a child support payment, they can be held in contempt. In this situation, they could lose their driver’s license and, in some states, they could even be arrested and serve jail time. This creates a dangerous cycle of injustice in the family law system. These parents are expected to have employment to pay child support, but many of them can’t get a job because they don’t have a driver’s license to get to work. Others may have a criminal record because they were held in contempt or arrested because of child support. So, if they can’t get a job to pay the child support that the court demands they owe, it’s truly a never-ending cycle.
As part of this system, there is emerging data about child support and racial injustice from the U.S. Department of Justice. According to a September 2021 publication from the National Institute of Justice, a division of the Office of Justice Programs, child support as a result of family law cases has increased significantly over the past 30 years. The publication connected statistics about child support and reentry, and also focused on figures that stem from the expansion of the criminal justice system and the public child support system. As part of this research, I pulled the following data from this report as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- In 2016, the expanded child support system collected over $33 billion for custodial parents.
- There has been a tenfold increase in child support debt over the past three decades. The $11.3 billion owed in 1987 jumped to $114.7 billion in 2017.
- The majority of the 5.5 million parents who owe this debt have extremely low incomes.
- 70% of the accumulated debt is owed by parents with incomes of $10,000 or less.
The data and statistics don’t end there. According to a December 2020 article published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty, millions of noncustodial parents across the United States owed over $115 billion in child support debt in 2019. The authors state that the majority of child support debt is owed by low-income fathers, many of whom are Black. In addition, it is noted that 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income communities go unmet and the vast majority of unrepresented litigants are low income. This article, entitled “Negotiating race and racial inequity in family court,” is stacked with extensive research about the unjust issues that black men and people of color face in family court. I highly recommend that all legal professionals and advocates read this piece to see the research done on this topic. This concept is becoming known as the justice gap – and we’re seeing it in family court systems across the United States. It’s important to mention that racial inequality has nothing to do with parental performance and involvement. In fact, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that black fathers are more involved with their children compared to white and Hispanic fathers. The report shows that a greater percentage of black fathers were more involved in the wellbeing and day-to-day care of their children. This included providing meals, giving baths, diapering and dressing, and spending quality time doing activities such as reading and playing.
You can watch my keynote speech during the Legal Aid Foundation’s Annual Thunderdome Tallahassee. During this presentation I share additional information about data, statistics, and figures concerning child support, custody, and access to representation:
Recently, I was also a recent live guest on the STATE of the FAMILY COURTS series that covered North Carolina. The program, hosted by Southern California Attorney Mark Reel, Jr. and the Father’s Rights Movement, focused on what the family court system in North Carolina can do to improve access to justice in family law. You can watch to this dynamic conversation through YouTube by clicking here or listening to it through your favorite podcast platform by clicking here.
Access to justice is one of the most important factors when combating racial inequality. As part of that, it’s essential that divorcing spouses understand they have process options that don’t involve a courtroom. When AN|R Law was founded in 2011, I wanted to create a law firm that created a quality representation options for our clients with functional costs. This was achieved through alternative dispute resolution processes which take place outside of the courtroom. As my law firm expanded across the state, I also co-founded two additional law firms with other attorneys in North Carolina. McLawhorn & Russell, PLLC, a family law and civil litigation firm, is headquartered in Raleigh and Michael & Russell, PLLC, an adoption and collaborative family law firm, is headquartered in Wilmington. With each of these law firms, we strive to make our services available to more people in a way that is client-focused with superior, honest representation.
To learn more about working with AN|R Law for divorce and other family law matters in North Carolina, please reach out to our office by calling 252-702-4376. We have four North Carolina locations in Raleigh, Greenville, Beaufort, and Wilmington to serve you and your family.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic or inviting me to speak at your event, I’d love to talk with you about the opportunity. I am now booking in-person and virtual speaking engagements for 2022. Please reach out to me by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. I look forward to speaking with you.