Charlie Caswell (left), James Kirkwood, Roy Ray, Marie Pizano, Dr. Altha Stewart and Laurie Powell are advocates for children seeking to build stronger brains for them, create awareness for Adverse Childhood Experiences, and provide mental health services. Courtesy photo

By Wiley Henry

MEMPHIS, TN — Marie V. Pizano is still feeling a little euphoric after learning that an amendment to a law mandating a parenting class for divorcing couples had recently passed in the Tennessee House of Representatives. 

“I started crying,” said Pizano, an author, film producer, businesswoman and community activist, after receiving the good news via text. 

Pizano had spent the better part of this year drumming up support for what resulted in a bipartisan effort to amend Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 36, Chapter 6. HB 2588 passed 95-0. On the other side, SB 2032 passed 30-0. 

“It’s official,” she said. “Now we’re waiting on the governor’s (Bill Lee) signature.”

The amendment requires that a 30-minute video on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) be shown to parents attending a parent educational seminar – in addition to them participating in a discussion – before the courts grant a divorce.

ACEs are defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood before the age of 18, such as witnessing violence, abuse, parental mental illness, substance use, divorce, incarceration, and domestic violence.

“In that class, it tells you the rules: [For example], don’t talk bad about the other parent, [or when there’s] harassment. It’s all the do’s and don’ts,” said Pizano, also the founder and CEO of MVP3 Entertainment Group, an artist and talent management firm located in Memphis.

With a full plate of entertainment fare already consuming her attention, Pizano made a decision earlier this year to seek political help for her ambitious goal to quell tensions between divorcing parents and the resulting collateral damage to children.

She personally understands the effects of ACEs after her first marriage went awry and after witnessing other families struggle themselves with emotional turmoil after a tumultuous divorce.

“Something needs to be done about parents who are divorcing,” she said, “because they’re the ones responsible for traumatizing their own children.” 

Pizano said she had listened to the horror stories, cringed because of broken homes, and abhors the use of children as weapons and pawns in the middle of a painful divorce. 

She has spoken about ACEs in her personal and professional lives for years and couldn’t put a name to the problems she had been dealing with. “I lived it myself,” she said. “It’s trauma after divorcing parents.”

Legacy of Legends CDC, a nonprofit in Memphis committed to developing trauma-informed and resilient communities, provides free training for ACEs. Pizano was trained and awarded a certificate. 

According to the CDC in Atlanta, ACEs are common, preventable and costly to families. “There is nothing wrong with educating parents on ACEs,” said Pizano, which prompted her to stump for legislation to improve the quality of life for families impacted by ACEs.

She first met with community stakeholders like the Rev. Charlie Caswell, the executive director of Legacy of Legends CDC and CEO/founder of 3V Leader; the Rev. James Kirkwood, executive director of Memphis Christian Pastors Network; Roy Ray, who works to keep youth out of the juvenile systems in Tennessee and Mississippi; Dr. Altha Stewart, senior associate dean for Community Health Engagement in the College of Medicine at UTHSC; and Laurie Powell, CEO at Alliance Health Services.

Then she turned her attention to the former Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. and discussed with him the possibility of getting a bill passed. Luttrell put her in touch with State Rep. Mark White (R-83) from Memphis.

Pizano then went on to lobby State Rep. Mary Littleton (R-78) from Dickson, TN; State Sen. Paul Rose (R-32) from Covington, TN; and State Rep. DeWayne Thompson (D-96) from Cordova, TN.

The language to the law that’s already on the books was subsequently amended and moved judiciously through the legislature. Rep. Littleton sponsored the House bill. Sen. Rose sponsored the Senate version. Dozens of legislators signed on as cosponsors – a bipartisan effort. 

Earlier this month, State Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-98) of Memphis made a pitch on the House floor to his colleagues on both sides of the aisle and encouraged them to support HB 2588. “It’s a good bill,” he told them. 

Rep. White, Pizano’s initial point of contact in the House, was called to the podium to speak. He first acknowledged Pizano – “my constituent,” he said – who trekked to and fro to Capitol Hill before the advent of Covid-19. 

“Marie Pizano is very passionate about what we’re doing to children in domestic and divorce courts,” White said, “…when the homes break down and there’s a lot of bickering back and forth, these are ACE experiences.” 

He continued: “And these things build up and they have a lasting effect on our children.”

Pizano concurs. But there is more to the problem, she said, than warring parents – attorneys. “They want you to fight. If you fight, they make money. They profit off you.” 

She refers to these attorneys – at least some of them – as “unethical.” “Attorneys need to be trained as well and educated on ACEs,” said Pizano, and added: “They fueled my fire to go create change.”

That fire is still raging within her. “I want to clean up the family law system. I’m not going to give up,” she promised.