Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were married in 2014. Just two years later, Jolie filed for divorce, initiating a high-profile custody battle that underscores the ramifications of equal parenting, which continue to be relevant today. 

Although Jolie cited irreconcilable differences, there were also reports of domestic violence and child abuse regarding an incident with Pitt and their son, Maddox, who was 15 at the time of the incident. 

As of now, the court documents in this case are sealed and no one outside of the court proceedings truly knows the details of the case. This custody battle is high-profile due to the celebrity status of the parties, but this type of case occurs in counties across the United States and deserves a closer look. 

Why is equal parenting a controversial issue in the US?

The topic of equal parenting or 50/50 physical and legal custody of divorced parents is a truly contentious issue. 

This topic brings up such issues as gender bias, traditional roles of mothers and fathers, and ultimately, what is best for the children. It can be equivalent in controversy to discussions of religion and politics. 

Research by Gabrielle Davis J.D.et al, “The Danger of Presumptive Joint Physical Custody” finds that equal parenting can sometimes work in ideal situations where both parents are cordial, cooperative, live close by each other, and truly make decisions together based on their children’s best interests. 

The research also shows that equal parenting cannot work when one of the parents views themselves as superior over the other parent or has a history of violence and/or abuse in the relationship. 

In the case of Jolie and Pitt, there are allegations of domestic violence and child abuse. The Saunders Study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice finds it crucial to do four things before making any ruling on custody when these allegations are present. It is imperative to: 

  • Screen for domestic violence
  • Provide a risk assessment for the case
  • Consider any post-separation abuse
  • Look at the impact of the violence on the children by using the ACE Study done by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention

If the courts do not commit to looking into these factors, the risk of harm to the children grows tremendously. 

“Equal” custody: Does father know best, after all?

In a 2017 interview with GQ, speaking about his break-up with Jolie, Brad Pitt said: 

I grew up with a father-knows-best/war mentality—the father is all-powerful, super-strong—instead of really knowing the man and his own self-doubt and struggles. And it’s hit me smack in the face with our divorce: I gotta be more. I gotta be more for them. I have to show them. And I haven’t been great at it.  

This quote gives us some insight into Pitt’s mentality regarding his role as a husband and father. Anecdotally, I have found that Pitt’s generation and older are more likely to accept a certain amount of violence in the home if it comes from the man of the house. Even though our laws have changed, I think the “father-knows-best & the father is all-powerful” mentality still exists in some households.

I agree that a father is a vital part of a child’s life. Children need strong, loving male role models in their lives. 

The problem occurs when a father is abusive to the children or the other parent. The fear and stress caused by abusive parents affect children’s health and well-being well into their adult lives. According to ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), abused children are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, heart disease, and even cancer than children who do not grow up with abuse. 

Pitt and his team maintain that Jolie is using the children as pawns, and her only goal is to hurt Pitt by continuing this very nasty custody battle. This “parental alienation” argument is too often used in equal parenting custody battles and is just another form of victim-blaming. 

The media reports that Pitt has never been convicted of any violence and that the allegations of abuse were not substantiated. He is just a father that wants to spend more time with his kids. These media reports may be accurate, but they do not prove that Jolie and the children are lying about the abuse. 

Courts’ logic: Equal custody in cases of domestic violence?

A very common mistake courts make is to believe that women and children claim false allegations of violence to win their case or alienate the father from the children. 

According to the Bala study, false allegations only happen less than 2% of the time. In the Jolie-Pitt case, there was a safety order in the custody arrangements (that is public information). The children’s visitation with Pitt was set under the jurisdiction of family services for three years. 

Pitt sought to seal the details of the arrangements made in 2016 with an emergency hearing, but Judge Richard J. Burdge Jr. denied his request. The agreement called for Pitt to have visitation with his children only under the guidance of a therapist. 

Pitt’s and Jolie’s eldest son Maddox, now 20 and considered an adult, has a voice in this case and it is not favorable towards his father. Jolie would like for the other children to have a voice as well. 

According to court records, Angelina Jolie has filed several documents making it clear that she is ready and willing to offer “proof and authority in support” of alleged domestic violence during her divorce trial against Brad Pitt. Along with Jolie’s testimony, there is a separate document filing concerning the testimony from the former couple’s minor children, but Judge Ouderkirk, according to Jolie, had been denying her a fair trial by his refusal to let the children’s voices be heard. 

In May, Pitt was awarded joint custody, but on July 23, Jolie won an appeals court ruling that disqualified the judge who awarded custody. This decision could mean the custody dispute will start all over again. Jolie states that this battle is far from over and she will appeal the decision of equal custody. She believes the health and safety of her children are at stake. In addition, USA Today now reports that Pitt is currently seeking a review of the ruling to remove Judge Ouderkirk by the California Supreme Court. 

How can YOU give children a voice in court custody battles?

While the Jolie-Pitt case is being fought in California, the whole nation is questioning and contesting the issue of equal parenting.

What we can learn from their case is that family courts do not have the necessary tools to make the sensitive and life-altering decisions they must make on behalf of children in these highly complex cases. 

According to scientific research and studies like Saunders, ACE Study, Bala’s Study, and Joan Meier, the family court system needs very serious reforms.

Jolie-Pitt and countless cases nationwide could benefit from reforms proposed in bills such as The Safe Child Act, Kyra’s Law, Kayden’s Law, and Jennifer’s Law. It’s time protective mothers, like Jolie, and their children have a voice in custody battles, especially where allegations of domestic violence and child abuse are present. 

Angelina Jolie is not only fighting for the protection of her own children, but she is also advocating for women, children, and families around the world. CNN reports that just recently she met with White House officials to discuss reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. This is a landmark piece of legislation championed by President Joe Biden.

Learn how you can help give children a voice in court custody battles by following our latest campaigns on Facebook and through our e-newsletter.

You can also donate to our work here

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Veronica York

Veronica York

High Conflict Coach

Veronica York is an advocate for change in the family court system, as well as a champion for domestic violence training and education. She performs speaking engagements and writes articles regarding child custody issues.

Veronica has an ACE score of 1.

Authors express their own opinions which do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Stop Abuse Campaign.