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Op-ed: Beyond the border, keep all families together

Not once during my lengthy divorce did a lawyer or judge ever suggest my husband and I try and work things out for the good of our family and the sake of our children.
Not once during my lengthy divorce did a lawyer or judge ever suggest my husband and I try and work things out for the good of our family and the sake of our children.
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Thousands have marched across America under the banner "Families Belong Together" in protest of President Trump’s zero tolerance policies that have separated immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. As a mother, my heart breaks for these children and their parents. Unfortunately, however, not all families count in America, especially those like mine.

For nearly 50 years, tens of millions of innocent American children and parents have been unlawfully separated with the blessing of our judicial system, legislators and citizenry. My daughters were only 7 and 12 when our forced separations began. They continued for a decade until my youngest went to college.

In 2002, my husband of 20 years abruptly left our family for another woman and quickly sued me for divorce. We lived in New York at the time, then the only state that hadn’t yet adopted no-fault divorce. Until then, the only purported way to exit a marriage was to prove the other party had committed an actionable wrong. It smacked of injustice to be accused of things I hadn’t done. So I fought back.

My lawyer told me judges pretty much ignored the law, however, enforcing it only if they had to. The system assumed divorce was a foregone conclusion. He warned me things wouldn’t be pretty if I resisted. He was right.

But I wanted to save my marriage and, more than anything, keep my family together. I knew the suffering in store for all of us if we broke apart. Research is plentiful that children from divorced homes face increased risks of poverty, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol addiction, depression, suicide, aggression and decreased longevity. The toll it can take on parents is well documented, too.

But not once during my lengthy divorce did a lawyer or judge ever suggest my husband and I try to work things out for the good of our family and the sake of our children. Instead, I was unrelentingly pressured to give up my legal rights and lose considerable, irretrievable time with my children as they grew up. Judges reprimanded me for my keep-families-together stance, even though a judgment ultimately determined I committed no wrongdoing whatsoever.

Except for a few loyal friends, and a lawyer who agreed to stand beside me despite his advice I give in, no one now marching in the streets rushed to my aid or the thousands of others pressured to divorce against their will since no-fault divorce laws were enacted beginning in 1970.

Eventually I entered into a so-called “voluntary” visitation agreement, and the divorce was final in 2009.

A year later, New York State passed no-fault divorce legislation and officially became the 50th state to allow any spouse to end a marriage, unilaterally, without proof or allegation of wrongdoing. I began writing about my experiences and co-founded a voluntary bipartisan organization to advocate for keeping families together. A few supporters applauded, especially those divorced against their will. So many more blasted me and called me names — desperate pathetic woman, complete idiot, foolish, narcissistic, mentally unstable, selfish, delusional and more. For years I worked long hours without pay to bring these family injustices to the attention of legislators and the public. But liberals and conservatives alike ultimately had more important items on their agenda than the millions of American families illegally separated from each other.

In 2013, I sold our family home because I could no longer afford to pay the mortgage. While packing up, I came across all the calendars I’d annotated with the children’s visitation schedules over the prior decade. I sat down to count up all the days we’d been compelled to live apart, but could not bring myself to finish. Creator of “Hamilton” Lin-Manuel Miranda sang a lullaby during the recent immigration marches, dedicating his song to the parents unable to sing to their own children. The final tally of nights I was forbidden to sing lullabies to my children has always been too painful to contemplate.

Yes, my children came back to me after visitation with their father. And, no, they weren’t kept in physical cages. But they were returned only to be ripped away, again and again, under the guise of legality.

No-fault divorce is clearly unconstitutional. The logic of Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges legalizing same-sex marriage inevitably condemns no-fault divorce. Marriage “safeguards children and families,” the Supreme Court wrote, and “affords the permanency and stability important to children’s best interests.” No-fault divorce strips that away, and the toll has been devastating. The Supreme Court has also held that parents have a fundamental right to rear their children. And still for these families year after year there remains silence across the land with nothing being done to reform our divorce laws.

We won’t stand for a country that separates children from families, last Saturday’s protesters chanted. If only that were true.

The #FamiliesBelongTogether movement should include all families wrongfully separated. Organizers must mean what they say or otherwise say what they really mean — that only certain families count in America.