The Pitt-Jolie breakup highlights all that can go wrong with the family court system when partners become acrimonious and Big Brother becomes involved in our most intimate and private issues. I should know, I have been a family law paralegal for more than 15 years, and I have seen the system fail both children and parents alike.
What is particularly odious about the family court system when vengeance is a motive is that once allegations of drug abuse, sexual abuse, or physical abuse are levied against a party, often with little to no evidence, the court system has no choice but to err on the side of caution. Temporary barriers are quickly erected against the aggrieved parent’s access to the minor children, regardless of the merit of the accusations.
The family court system is not set up to parse whether it is being played by a party who is using the children to hurt or exact revenge on the other parent. The simple fact is that the court does not have the time or resources to sort out which party is telling the truth.
Anyone who has been in the family court system knows that trials are rare and expensive. Typically, parties get no more than 15 to 30 minutes of court room time and often never speak during these hearings. Rather, judges make snap judgments in temporary rulings and appoint court “experts” who are then tasked with getting to the truth of the allegations and weighing in on what is best for the minor children.
In Pitt’s case, this would be mandatory drug testing and supervised visitation. But experts do not come cheap, and they do not come without their own personal biases. I have worked with some very excellent guardian ad litems, court-appointed representatives who work on behalf of the children only, and I have worked with some unreasonable guardians who did incalculable damage to the children who are caught up in these acrimonious custody battles.
In my own state, whenever both parties are seeking sole custody of the children, the appointment of a guardian ad litem is mandatory. Although I understand the court’s reasons for requiring a guardian, the sad truth is that most parents cannot afford one. Typically, by the time the court appoints a guardian, the parent has already had to come up with no less than $3,500 for a legal retainer and the attorney’s costs for the first temporary hearing. This sum is much, much higher in wealthier states. Typically, by the time the parent leaves their first temporary hearing, their attorney retainer has been used up.
Following a temporary hearing, the party must replenish their attorney’s retainer as well as pay the retainer for the court-appointed guardian, typically at least half the cost. Following a guardian’s investigation of the facts of the case, many states mandate arbitration or mediation. The mediator or arbiter must also be paid. If mandatory drug testing is required, the party must also pay the costs of expensive hair follicle drug testing. This system becomes even more convoluted if the Department of Social Services becomes involved, which almost always occurs when sexual or physical abuse allegations have been levied against a parent.
While Pitt is obviously able to pay his legal fees, most Americans cannot, and therein is the rub. The system that is set up to protect the minor children, often fails them. A wrongfully accused parent must pay to play and it is often the parent who has the most funds who wins.
There is nothing worse than a parent who deliberately alienates the other parent from a child, and it is always the child who is damaged in the end. What is worse is when the system alienates a child from a parent. Parents and children “win” when they keep the children’s best interests in mind and work together to come to an agreement on visitation and custody issues.
If the tabloids are to be believed, Pitt has made gestures to seek a reasonable agreement with Jolie,who appears unwilling to move from the hard-line position she has taken, that of one that Pitt is a threat to the children, this even after the investigation has shown Pitt not culpable.
There is no way to know what Jolie’s motives are and whether or not her allegations against Pitt are true. However, what is true is that, should they prove false, there is nothing more evil a parent could do to harm their own children than using them as a pawn against the other party. Parental alienation is pervasive in our current no-fault divorce system in a pay to play court process. Your best bet if your are caught up in a nasty custody battle, short of reaching an agreement, is to hire an attorney to help you navigate the system and put your best parenting skills front and center of court-appointed experts. Take out a loan if you must, because in the end your children are going to thank you when both parents remain active in their lives.