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A Move to Crack Down on Breakups

Divorce: Some states are considering returning to the fault-based system as a way of keeping families intact. But critics say forcing couples to stay together is the wrong approach.

February 22, 1996|CONNIE KOENENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The phrase "family values" is tossed out so much these days that it is beyond being a cliche. Everyone invokes the notion: First Lady Hillary Clinton is on the bestseller list with her ideas; talk shows are reverberating with the cacophony; and on the campaign trail, all the presidential candidates are debating the strains on the nuclear family.

But that's talk. For radical change in the laws that help shape families, the serious action is starting to emerge on the stages of state legislatures. It started last week in Michigan, jumped this week to Iowa, and waiting in the wings are Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. They are all considering some sort of legislation to make it harder for couples to get married and divorced.

To many social critics, nothing less than a counterrevolution is underway. "Family values has been used and misused for all kinds of purposes, but the serious debate is about family structure," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a nonpartisan think tank. "I think the emergence of divorce law reform reflects that the debate is over and we as a society have now made up our minds to take action."

Republican Jessie Dalman is serving her third term in Michigan's House of Representatives but last week she became an overnight sensation. By introducing, at a St. Valentine's Day news conference, a package of bills that would scrap and revamp Michigan's 1972 no-fault divorce law, Dalman opened the door to a reform movement that seeks nothing less than a wholesale remodeling of the American way of marriage.

Dalman contends that no-fault divorce, once seen as a panacea for couples trapped in loveless marriages, has "weakened the fabric of the family." And the early attention awarded her legislation, which would retain no-fault only when both parties consent to a divorce, dramatizes both a growing dissatisfaction with the way couples dissolve a marriage in this country and sharp differences on ways to repair the damage.

A former American history teacher, Dalman, 62, chairs the House Higher Education Committee and a subcommittee on divorce, which will begin deliberations on the proposal next week. Her legislation was shaped by a year of statewide public hearings, including suggestions from the Michigan Family Forum and the Michigan Catholic Conference.

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"I think we are taking a good hard look at middle America in the mirror and thinking that we need to change. It's not somebody else's fault," said Dan Jarvis, director of research for the Michigan Family Forum. "This is nonpartisan and we are hearing from legislators across the country."

Following the nascent divorce reform movement optimistically is Kristi Hamrick, director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. "Michigan is the first state, but it's one of those things where everybody is watching," she said in phone interview. "There's nothing like a successful piece of legislation to make others more bold."

That's jumping the gun a little. But with support being voiced for Dalman's bill in the GOP-controlled Michigan legislature and similar bills being readied in at least seven other states, Hamrick's group, which she describes as a "pro-family, public policy think tank," foresees a grass-roots movement toward reinstituting tougher divorce laws.

Alarmed at statistics indicating that half of all marriages end in divorce, that one in four children are now living in single-parent homes and that women's living standards drop an average of 30% after a divorce, these reform advocates are looking backward. Today's no-fault divorce, in which either spouse may cancel a marriage at any time, is a failure and has victimized women, they contend, particularly in cases where a spouse has been traded in for a "newer model."

Even the name "no-fault" sounds too cavalier, they say. Returning to a fault-based system, Hamrick said, restores blame on the person leaving the marriage, which is more often the husband. Whether it is the husband or wife, he or she should have to pay a penalty, Hamrick said, such as getting less of the property. "No-fault is the automatic rewarding of the thing the abandoning person most desires--the end of the marriage.

"What we are seeing across the nation is a cry for justice to be reinserted in the divorce process," she said. "We don't think anybody intended to create the No. 1 impoverisher of women and children, but that's what has happened."

Yet many family law experts, who acknowledge that it's probably too easy to get married, also maintain that going backward will solve nothing.

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