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Faculty Spotlight

Breger Making Waves in Family Law Research, Advancement

Melissa Breger

By Lauren Mineau

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President William McKinley Distinguished Professor in Law and Public Policy & Professor of Law Melissa Breger has been tackling topics in family law for years. She’s busy putting a pen to paper getting all those topics covered in a handful of upcoming publications while keeping up with emerging issues.

The field has seen some significant shifts in recent years and even more changes with courts adapting to the pandemic.

“Family law encompasses so many other areas of law and so many aspects of the legal system.  It is such a revolutionary time to explore the field of family law,  and probably more exciting than it ever has been in terms of what the law can accomplish,” she said.

As advances come with technology, family law is catching up—but it takes strong legal minds to break down the issues.

Breger is doing just that with multiple pieces of upcoming scholarship and an upcoming sabbatical.

Her forthcoming book, EXPLORING NORMS AND FAMILY LAWS ACROSS THE GLOBE (Lexington Books/Rowman-Littlefield, forthcoming 2021), is a collaboration of authors each writing a chapter comparing different jurisdictions about an aspect of family law. This interdisciplinary comparative law book will explore various aspects of family law across the globe, she said.

The joint effort helped to spark inspiration for Breger to create another opportunity to work with scholars throughout the world and create an International Research Collaborative (IRC) entitled Global Perspectives on Family Law in Context held at the 2021 Law and Society Annual (LSA) Meeting. She will continue the IRC in May 2022 in Lisbon, Portugal LSA annual meeting. 

Breger’s chapter in the book and her presentation at LSA were based upon her earlier paper, Corporal Punishment, Social Norms and Norm Cascades: Examining Cross-National Laws and Trends In Homes Across The Globe, 26 William & Mary Journal of Race, Gender, and Social Justice 1 (2020). The paper was co-authored by Lucy Sorensen, Victor Asal, and Charmaine Willis of the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany.

“The book explores questions such as ‘What does it mean to be a parent?’ or ‘What does it mean to be a family?’ It talks about children’s rights and the overall culture of family law,” she said. “None of these issues are universally decided. In some countries there are strict laws about who can be a family, in other countries it's more functional instead of formalistic. Even in our own country we are still evolving. The courts are catching up with the technology, but it’s a slower process.”

She’s also working on an article to be published in the Dickinson Law Review (Penn State Law) titled “Stemming the Tide:  Social Norms and Child Sex Trafficking,” which in some ways expands upon her 2016 West Virginia Law Review article, "Healing Sex-Trafficked Children: A Domestic Family Law Approach to an International Epidemic."

“It's my second article addressing child sex trafficking. The first one was more about the trauma endured by trafficked children, and how that experience mirrored the trauma of  children who are sexually abused in the home.  I recommended utilizing a therapeutic foster home model for rehabilitating and healing these children” she said. “This article is more about the demand that fuels child sex trafficking.  I focus upon challenging social norms that sexualize children and look at ways to heavily stigmatize it, which ideally, will eventually decrease the demand.”

As all these issues continue to emerge, lawyers, and law students need to realize that this important work can take a toll on their personal mental health and well-being.

“Many front-line workers, including lawyers, experience what we call vicarious traumatization.  You are facing  traumatic material every day and then you have to ensure you do not vicariously traumatize yourself.  It is something you always have to be mindful about, and I talk to my students about it on a regular basis,” she said. “Sometimes I find that writing about these tough issues can be very cathartic, and then other times I I'll have to take a break from writing about it. In the final analysis, if my writing can help get the message out and better society, that is the light that keeps me going.”

Melissa Breger