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Published February 23, 2007

The Truth About Parental Alienation

by Irene Weiser

The truth about parental alienation, custody and abuse.
Proponents of Parental Alienation portray parental alienation as a destructive family dynamic, usually manifesting during custody battles, in which one parent purportedly turns the child’s sentiments against the other parent.  Failure to recognize and correct this dynamic by ensuring that the child has a relationship with both parents, they claim, will cause great harm to the child.

Indeed, nothing can be further from the truth.  Parental Alienation is a discredited, pseudo-psychological theory whose application in custody determinations has caused great harm to children.

Background

Parental Alienation Syndrome was first described in 1985 by the pro-pedophilia  psychiatrist Richard Gardner, at a time when the epidemic of child sexual abuse in our country was first being recognized. 

Gardner defines PAS as follows:

The parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent's indoctrinations and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the target parent . . .

Gardner proposed that most allegations of child sexual abuse in custody proceedings were false – that a bitter or vindictive parent had planted such suggestions into the child to turn the child against, or alienate the child from, the other parent.  The remedy, Gardner held, was to punish the accusing parent and award custody to the parent the child rejected.  

There is no empirical evidence for the existence of PAS , Gardner’s theory has not undergone peer review, and PAS has never been accepted by the American Psychiatric Association for inclusion as a clinical diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Nonetheless, the theory of PAS has been increasingly relied upon in family courts and its logic extended to apply not only to situations where child sexual abuse was alleged, but to any allegations of family violence.

Tragic Consequences

The results of its acceptance in family court have been tragic.  

Parental Alienation fails to recognize that a parent or child may have legitimate reasons for having antipathy toward the other parent; it rejects out of hand the idea that allegations of abuse could be true.  Thus, instead of investigating allegations of abuse, PAS turns the focus of the court’s investigation onto the motives of accuser. Evidence of animosity toward the other parent is regarded as evidence of PAS. As a result of this "through-the-looking-glass" thinking, when courts award visitation or custody to the parent the child has an aversion to, in many instances, the courts are awarding custody to abusers.  

Some children placed in the custody of their abusers have committed suicide; others have run away, and countless others have endured the abuse and are permanently traumatized..  In recent years, children placed in custody of their abusers have been coming forward to tell their stories and to warn of the harms of PAS. 

PAS Discredited in Mental Health and Legal Communities

This past year (2006) the American Bar Association’s Children’s Legal Rights Journal published an article that undertook a comprehensive analysis of the scientific, legal and policy issues involved in the evidentiary admissibility of Parental Alienation Syndrome, and found that there was no support for its use.

“PAS’s twenty-year run in American courts is an embarrassing chapter in the history of evidentiary law. It reflects the wholesale failure of legal professionals entrusted with evidentiary gatekeeping intended to guard legal processes from the taint of pseudo-science…. As a matter of science, law, and policy PAS should remain inadmissible in American courts.”
Jennifer Hoult Esq, The Evidentiary Admissibility of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Science, Law, and Policy, 26 Child. Legal Rts J. 1 (2006).


Also this past year, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges published a judges bench book that also found no scientific or legal basis for admission of parental alienation. Further, it cautioned:

The discredited "diagnosis" of "PAS" (or allegation of "parental alienation"), quite apart from its scientific invalidity, inappropriately asks the court to assume that the children's behaviors and attitudes toward the parent who claims to be "alienated" have no grounding in reality. It also diverts attention away from the behaviors of the abusive parent, who may have directly influenced the children's responses by acting in violent, disrespectful, intimidating, humiliating and/or discrediting ways toward the children themselves, or the children's other parent.
Navigating Custody & Visitation Evaluations in Cases with Domestic Violence: A Judge’s Guide, 2006, pg 24)


In 2003, the National District Attorneys Association’s National Center for Prosecution of Child Abuse stated that

Although PAS may be hailed as a "syndrome" . . . in fact it is the product of anecdotal evidence gathered from Dr. Gardner's own practice. [...] PAS is based primarily upon two notions, neither of which has a foundation in empirical research. […] PAS is an untested theory that, unchallenged, can have far-reaching consequences for children seeking protection and legal vindication in courts of law.”


And the 1996 Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family states that

Although there are no data to support the phenomenon called parental alienation syndrome, in which mothers are blamed for interfering with their children's attachment to their fathers, the term is still used by some evaluators and courts to discount children's fears in hostile and psychologically abusive situations.[pg 40] Family courts often do not consider the history of violence between the parents in making custody and visitation decisions. . . . Psychological evaluators not trained in domestic violence may contribute to this process by ignoring or minimizing the violence and by giving inappropriate pathological labels to women's responses to chronic victimization. Terms such as "parental alienation" may be used to blame the women for the children's reasonable fear of or anger toward their violent father. [pg 100]

Statistics

Multiple studies confirm the grim reality that at least 70% of contested custody disputes involve domestic violence.  Further, there is considerable overlap between domestic violence, child abuse and incest.  Multiple studies show that the majority of men who abuse their wives or girlfriends also abuse the children.  At least half of incest perpetrators also committed domestic violence, and daughters of batterers are 6.5 times more likely than other girls to be victims of incest.

Conclusion

It is time for law guardians, evaluators and judges to stop believing in the myth of Parental Alienation, and instead investigate the abuse that protective parents and children allege. 

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