Published on October 03, 2006 by Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Casualties of a Custody War
by Mackenzie Carpenter and Ginny Kopas
Who am I? That's a question I haven't asked myself for quite some time. Many things, (mostly bad), have happened in my life. There are so many that it would take me two whole lifetimes to type about it....
Of all the bad things that happened to me, I think that finding out that the one girl I thought I loved said that it was all out of pity. Everything; the one night that we shared at ClubXtreme and all the love I thought we shared was all one big freaking joke...
Enough on that mistake, lets move on to the other torture in my life. Eight years ago my parents got a divorce and my father threw us out of the house. That act forced us to move up here, because we had no other place to go. Even now, 8 years later, he is still harassing us through court case after court case. There are more stories like the two that I've just type but I don't have the time or the sanity to go on. Thus ends this chapter in my life of endless torment.
--- Excerpts from a February essay by Nathan Grieco, a junior at Norwin High School
Part I: What's best for the child?
Court ruling, hostile divorce add up to torment
||Karen Scott with her sons Justin Grieco, left, and Patrick Grieco in their North Huntingdon home. (Steve Mellon / Post-Gazette)|
On the morning of Feb. 27, about two weeks after Nathan Grieco wrote those words, Karen Scott of North Huntingdon walked into her 16-year-old son's room to make sure he was getting ready for school.
Instead, she found him kneeling on the floor by his bed, a leather belt around his neck, blood spilling from his mouth. He was dead.
The coroner's office said there was insufficient evidence of either a suicide or an accident, and that the manner of Nathan Grieco's death "could not be determined."
It wasn't a news story in Westmoreland County. The community newspaper treated it delicately with a routine $5-a-line obituary; only Nathan's age would have caught a reader's attention.
But two weeks after he died, his mother decided to go public with her son's story, testifying before a House committee in Harrisburg. And shortly after that, news of Nathan's death began circulating in legal and child advocacy circles across the country.
Today, a Web page based in Austin, Texas, is dedicated to him. Another Web site operated by the American Bar Association has been buzzing with inquiries about his case. And several children's rights groups are organizing a memorial service for Nathan on June 7 at New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
His story has attracted attention not so much for how he died, but how he lived. Nathan Grieco was on the front lines of a vicious custody battle between his parents that resulted in an unusual and perhaps unprecedented court order aimed at him, his mother and his brothers, Justin, 14, and Patrick, 12.
Since 1993, the Grieco boys had resisted visiting their father, Louis Grieco, who they said had abused them and their mother; Grieco refused to be interviewed for this story, but in court papers, he contended that Scott had brainwashed their sons into hating him.
Early last year, the conflict prompted a Westmoreland County judge to take drastic action.
It was called "threat therapy."
Common Pleas Judge John J. Driscoll directed Nathan and his brothers not only to visit their father, but to be in a positive frame of mind and be respectful and obedient toward him.
If they didn't behave on those visits, former district attorney Driscoll ruled, their mother could go to jail.
A questionable expert
The kind of criminal contempt sanction that Driscoll levied - threatening to jail a parent for a child's behavior while the child is out of the parent's control - is highly unusual, according to national experts in family law.
Driscoll's "threat therapy" ruling, which remains in effect, is all the more controversial because it seems to rely on recommendations by Dr. Richard Gardner, a prominent expert witness whose unorthodox ideas about treating children in child custody cases are popular with some lawyers, but have been questioned by many mainstream mental health professionals.
Elsewhere in the nation, there have been isolated cases of judges jailing adolescent children for contempt because they refused to visit a parent, "but I've never heard of `threat therapy' being applied in this way," said Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Association's Center for Children and the Law.
Threatening to jail the mother may be constitutionally questionable, said Jeff Atkinson, a family law expert at DePaul University. "You can only be punished for wrongdoing you committed, not for something someone else did, under constitutional notions of due process and fundamental fairness," Atkinson said.
It's not clear how much this "threat therapy" contributed to the pressures that Nathan was feeling when he hanged himself.
The ruling was in effect for one year, during which the boys saw their father every month and for a two-week summer vacation; there is no evidence that their tense relationship improved during that time. At year's end, Karen Scott's attorney petitioned the court to rescind the threat therapy order, a request that was denied. A month later, Nathan was dead.
His friends insist that he wasn't suicidal, but the essay he wrote in high school shortly before he died was anguished, citing both the girlfriend's rejection and his father's "harassing us through court case after court case."
On the night he died, Nathan Grieco searched his mother's desk for a copy of the court order, Karen Scott said. She found it on a kitchen counter the next morning.
While the exact circumstances of Nathan's death may never be known, his case raises questions about the way courts balance children's interests with parental rights.
When deciding such thorny cases, judges in most states rely on one overriding legal standard: "the best interest of the child." It's a standard that is supposed to take precedence over all other considerations, including parental rights.
But it's not always easy to know what the best interests of children are when their mother and father are at war.
Most judges still subscribe to the notion that contact with both parents is usually the best solution, except in the most extreme cases. In Pennsylvania, judges may stop visits only if a parent "suffers from mental or moral deficiencies that pose a grave threat to the child."
But what about cases where the child seems to be traumatized by such visits? Or what about cases where the child simply refuses to see a parent? Are forced visits with that parent in the best interest of that child?
A suburban tragedy
It seems like an unlikely setting for an American tragedy.
In this sprawling North Huntingdon subdivision of $200,000-plus homes, little boys on minibikes dart in and out of driveways, and the lush green lawns are worn away in places from pickup baseball games.
|Karen Scott (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette)
Karen Scott and her current husband, Alvin, live in a pink and gray brick house with gaily colored flags flapping from a pole in the front yard.
In the concrete in front of the neatly kept home, there are three boys' handprints, and three names - Nathan, Justin and Patrick - commemorating the date the driveway was poured for their new house.
Yet it was also on this driveway that a physical altercation occurred between Karen Scott and Louis Grieco in 1993, resulting in Grieco's arrest on aggravated assault charges. He later won an acquittal.
It was there, too, that in 1993 armed sheriff's deputies hauled the boys, screaming and kicking, into a county van to take them to supervised visits with their father.
And finally, in late February, it was in an upstairs bedroom of the house that Nathan's life ended.
Inside, family photographs line the walls, portraying three dark-eyed, dark-haired, inseparable boys: Patrick, the youngest, with a sweet round face; Justin, the handsomest, always with a scowl, the one described by one psychologist as "in charge" of the other children; and Nathan, the oldest, the most elusive, a cipher peering out behind thick glasses, unreadable.
"Nathan talked to everyone, but hung out with no one," said Beth Updegraff, 17, of North Huntingdon, who attended Norwin High School and the local Mormon church with him.
Updegraff said that while she knew Nathan from school, they weren't "fast friends." But she remembers that he "really liked his job at Teddy's (Restaurant). That's one thing he did talk about. Nathan was a vo-tech student who only spent a half day in school, so that kept him out of the loop, too."
An "attention deficit disorder child" who was taking medication, Nathan was also socially and physically awkward and not particularly popular in school.
"Nathan was different than most kids. People are judgmental about looks. They don't always see your character," Updegraff said.
Even though Nathan struggled with depression, particularly in the last year of his life, he got good grades in school, his mother said, and was both excited and anxious about the $175-a-week job he had at Teddy's Restaurant in Irwin after school - excited about the money, anxious about the possibility he might be fired if court-ordered visits to his father meant he would miss work.
Certainly, of the three boys, Nathan's relationship with his father was the most complicated. As the oldest, he was the only one who could really remember when Louis Grieco had lived at home. In court documents, psychologists described him as wanting a relationship with his father, but being fearful of him, too, scared of Grieco's temper.
The other two boys were less equivocal: They wanted little to do with Louis Grieco, and Nathan expressed guilt and confusion for feeling different from his brothers.
Slight of build, possessed of little athletic coordination, he felt unable to please a father who set great stock in such skills, his brothers say.
"He pushed Nathan harder than any of us. He was always on him," Justin said of his father.
When Nathan failed to perform well at basketball, he once told the court, his father yelled at him in front of his friends, calling him "an embarrassment to the game"; Grieco, according to court documents, denied doing that, saying he had merely told his son that if he wasn't interested in playing basketball, he didn't have to.
Whatever the case, Nathan is described in court records as suffering "severe, chronic anxiety manifestations due to the custody dispute these parties have been embroiled in since 1989."
The root of the trouble
Actually, the conflict ignited many years before that.
Louis Grieco, a Fresno, Calif., native, and Karen Smith, of Monroeville, met in 1978, at the California military base where they both worked. He was an operating room technician; she was an Army nurse who had never been out of Allegheny County until she joined the military.
"He was nice to me," Scott says today.
They married in 1978. She worked to put him through college, and he then joined the Navy, eventually becoming a pilot.
In 1981, Nathan was born, in Fresno, followed by Justin in 1983 and Patrick in 1985. Scott says frictions between the couple began to escalate when the children were born; in 1989, they divorced, in Corpus Christi, Texas, after Scott contended that Grieco had been unfaithful to her, and Grieco told her he wanted his freedom. The grounds were "irreconcilable differences."
With some bitterness, she said he didn't even wait through the 60-day period for the divorce to become final before notifying his superiors, who evicted Karen Scott from their Navy housing with two weeks' notice. She moved back to Monroeville, to a home next to her parents.
Despite the bitter feelings between Scott and Grieco, visits between the father and his children went smoothly for the first few years after the divorce. When he wasn't stationed at sea, Grieco would fly up to see them. Scott was working as an operating room nurse at the Veterans Affairs Department Medical Center in Oakland.
When her ex-husband visited, she would stay with her parents so he could use her house. She loaned Grieco her car.
But then, in 1991, Karen met Alvin Scott, a medical technologist at the hospital, and after a brief long-distance courtship while Scott was stationed in North Carolina, they decided to get married.
In January 1992, standing in the kitchen of her home in Monroeville, she and Scott told Grieco about their impending marriage.
"He shook our hands and said congratulations," Scott said.
Then, after handing her an alimony check, Grieco walked out the door and went back to Virginia, where he was stationed, and had the bank stop payment on the check.
Then he filed petitions to vacate their 1989 divorce decree.
Delaying a marriage
To this day, Scott said, she is mystified by her ex-husband's response, which threw a major wrench into her wedding plans.
"He claimed I was after all kinds of extra money," Scott said. "But if he had just let us get married, he wouldn't have had to pay any more spousal support. I just couldn't understand why he wanted to hold us up. He held us hostage, actually."
While Grieco has refused to be interviewed about his side of the story, he did speak at length with Dr. Richard Gardner, whom he later hired as an expert witness during the legal dispute. Gardner described Grieco's version of events in a report filed with the court in 1996.
Grieco, Gardner said, told him he began having trouble visiting his boys after he stopped alimony payments to his ex-wife in 1992.
Grieco was a Navy pilot, and after his June 1992 return from a six-month deployment in the Mediterranean, he told Gardner there was a "significant difference" in the boys. They said their mother wanted them to address Alvin Scott as "Daddy," and that Louis Grieco was not their "real" dad, only their "biological" dad.
At that point, Gardner said, Grieco "became very concerned and believed that his wife wanted to replace him in the children's lives with her new boyfriend." On two occasions, Grieco said, he drove 700 miles from his home in Illinois, only to be told by Karen Scott that the boys were unavailable for visits; she cited a misunderstanding about the date in one case and a work-schedule conflict in the other.
In court records, Grieco described himself as a doting father who had played an important role in his children's lives.
The boys, who were 8, 6 and 4 when the wrangling began between their parents, told their mother a different story, she said.
Karen Scott said they talked about how Grieco had become short-tempered, constantly criticizing her and Alvin; how Grieco refused to allow them to go on school trips or games on weekends he visited; how he would take them to cheap motels and videotape them, asking them repeatedly about their mother's activities.
Manipulated or abused?
It's hard to know exactly whom to blame for the deteriorating relationship between Grieco and his sons.
Sometimes their grievances seemed questionable. In court records, for instance, the boys once said their father's offer to rent video games for them was a "bribe"; another time, they complained that he shouted when he told them to brush their teeth.
But they also said Grieco, in one argument, threw Nathan onto the floor, where he hit his head; and that another time, he called Justin, 9, who had bedwetting problems, "Piss Pot Pete" in front of his friends (Grieco countered in court papers that he said it in the middle of the night while they were staying in a motel).
Were the boys recoiling from their father's conduct, or was Scott manipulating them? Was Grieco's behavior to blame, or was she encouraging them to distance themselves from a man she disliked?
Or was it some of both?
In October 1992, a Texas judge threw out Grieco's request to reopen his divorce petition. With that matter settled, Karen and Alvin Scott married, and settled into a new home with the boys in a North Huntingdon subdivision called Altman Farms.
But the legal dispute between Grieco and his ex-wife was far from over. In Westmoreland County, Grieco began filing court petitions, all with the same theme: Scott was preventing him from seeing his children.
The tensions between Karen Scott and Louis Grieco built throughout 1993, until one October day, when all of the bitterness between them exploded in Scott's driveway.
Part II: The courtroom as battleground
In February, Nathan Grieco, 16, of North Huntingdon was found dead in his bedroom, a belt around his neck. His death came after years of custody disputes between his mother, Karen Scott, and his father, Louis Grieco. Nathan's death has attracted national attention from children's rights groups and legal experts, and has raised the question of how courts should treat children who are caught between warring parents. The dispute between his father and mother intensified after Scott remarried in 1993. That's where today's story begins.
On the night of Oct. 23, 1993, Karen Scott's North Huntingdon neighbors rushed to their windows and porches after hearing blood-curdling screams coming from Scott's driveway.
While accounts differ on exactly what happened, all sides agree that some kind of physical altercation occurred at the home that night, injuring both Scott, who needed stitches for cuts in her cheek and mouth, and her ex-husband, Louis Grieco, who suffered a fractured finger and some scratches and bruises around his neck.
Four years after their divorce, the simmering Grieco-Scott feud had erupted in violence. Grieco, a retired Navy pilot, had been saying in court petitions that Scott was preventing him from seeing his children; Scott contended that Grieco had become increasingly hostile to her and to the three boys, Nathan, then 11; Justin, 9; and Patrick, 7, ever since she had informed him in 1992 she was going to remarry.
Whoever was right, the events of that evening would have lasting, traumatic effects on the three children.
Grieco was arrested on assault charges and jailed for two weeks. The incident prompted an investigation by the Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, counseling sessions for the boys, and a protective order barring Grieco from contacting them.
More than a year afterward, in November 1994, he was found not guilty in a jury trial. The prosecutor, Alan Pawanda, said that because no witnesses had seen who had started the fight, there was plenty of reasonable doubt facing the jury, and "juries are kind of hesitant about convicting when there isn't overwhelming evidence. They think this kind of thing is a private matter."
Shortly after the acquittal, Louis Grieco filed for renewed visits with his sons.
The family court judge in the case, John Blahovec, took a cautious tack.
He ruled that supervised visits could take place "in a therapeutic setting." He chose the Comprehensive Counseling Center, a branch of Westmoreland Hospital, which receives the bulk of the court's therapy assignments.
The visits were not successful. Nearly half a dozen times between November 1994 and February 1995, Grieco came from Illinois to see the boys, and each time they refused, citing their fear and anger because of the assault. Social workers who were present noted that Karen Scott urged them to go see their father.
In December 1995, a new judge took over the case. It was former District Attorney John J. Driscoll, who had won election to Common Pleas Court that fall.
Trained as a prosecutor, Driscoll took a decidedly harder line when the boys continued to defy court orders to visit their father. In January 1996, he ordered that sheriff's deputies escort the children to the center -- or Karen Scott would face the possibility of six months in jail.
On Jan. 16, 1996, the boys were dragged, kicking and screaming, into a sheriff's van at their home and taken to the counseling center.
The same day, Scott's attorney, Sandra Davis, asked the court to appoint a "guardian ad litem" for the children -- a lawyer who would represent the interests of the children. The court appointed Richard Baumgartner of Latrobe.
Shortly afterward, Scott said, Nathan had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in the child psychiatric unit at Monsour Medical Center. His diagnosis: anxiety, depression and oppositional disorder, which encompasses hostility, disobedience and difficulty controlling impulses.
Enter Richard Gardner
Not long after Nathan's hospitalization, in February 1996, the stakes rose dramatically in the battle between his parents.
Louis Grieco filed for full custody, saying the children were suffering from something called Parental Alienation Syndrome, or PAS.
PAS is a theory espoused by Dr. Richard Gardner, a psychiatrist on the faculty of Columbia University.
Gardner believes that 90 percent of the allegations of abuse against children in custody cases are false, whether they involve physical, emotional or sexual abuse.
When children claim abuse in a custody battle, Gardner said, it's usually because they are suffering the effects of PAS, a mental disorder mostly afflicting "vindictive mothers" who have brainwashed their children into making allegations against the fathers.
Gardner provides no scientific data to support his theories about PAS, and most of his articles on the subject have not appeared in peer-reviewed medical journals, which require analysis by fellow professionals before publication. Instead, he publishes his own books, audio tapes and videotapes.
PAS also isn't listed as a "syndrome" in the American Psychiatric Association's manual of such disorders.
Still, Gardner, who declined to be interviewed for this report, has become a favorite witness for some divorce lawyers -- usually those representing fathers -- who believe that his scientific language and his forceful personality are a potent weapon in the courtroom.
Most therapists agree that children often become alienated from one parent or another in contentious divorces. But Gardner's "syndrome" goes too far, they say, particularly because it erroneously places all blame on one parent, usually the mother.
Determining the causes of a child's alienation isn't easy, and the Grieco case was no exception.
The experts disagree
Carol Patterson, a psychologist and investigator with the county Children's Bureau, told the court she didn't believe that Scott had negatively influenced the children. Dr. Dale Fruman, a psychiatrist with the Comprehensive Counseling Center at Westmoreland Hospital, felt otherwise.
Citing the center's difficulty in arranging visits between the father and his children, Fruman said Scott had done "everything she could not to promote a positive relationship with the father over the course of many years, to undermine it, to devaluate it, demote it, interfere with it."
Still, both Patterson and Fruman agreed that visits should not be forced.
Gardner had a very different view.
In a 61-page report to the court, he stated that while his conclusions had to be considered "hypothetical," the Grieco case was, in his opinion, a "classical example of PAS."
Even though Scott's attorney rejected his request to interview Scott or the boys, Gardner concluded that Scott was "sadistic" in failing to allow Grieco to visit his children on two occasions; and that the children were "sadistic" in how they treated their father, and had "indeed been injured psychologically and mentally by their programming mother."
Scott's "obstructionism," he said, "was massive."
While Gardner did not recommend transferring custody of the boys to Grieco at that point, he did recommend something he called "threat therapy."
"These children need coercion" to see their father, he said. If they are forced to visit him, they "then will most likely relax with their father."
And the penalty for not complying, he said, should be court-enforced sanctions against the mother.
The judge's ruling
With the experts' contradictory opinions in front of him, it was time for Driscoll to make a decision.
In February 1997, the judge ordered the boys and their mother to appear in his courtroom. He then read them his order.
Mother would retain custody, but the children had to visit their father. And under his order, Scott would not only be responsible for delivering the boys for visits with their father; she would ensure that they were in "a positive frame of mind, ready and willing to go with" Grieco; she would ensure that they were "at all times respectful of father and of his lawful commands."
If she failed to fulfill these and other responsibilities listed in Driscoll's order, she would be held on contempt-of-court charges, "and if she is determined to be in contempt, she will be sentenced to a period of incarceration."
There have been some cases nationally of judges sending adolescents to jail for refusing to visit a parent. Last summer, a 14-year-old girl in North Carolina was locked up for three days for refusing to visit her father in Los Angeles (the psychologists in her case also cited Parental Alienation Syndrome).
But this kind of sanction, "threat therapy," is almost unknown, according to experts in family law and custody cases.
"There certainly is a whole intensity that accompanies these cases," said Jeff Atkinson, a family law expert at DePaul University. "Sometimes judges will get exasperated and enter blustery orders or comments to try to make the children have a good relationship with their parents."
And sometimes, in rare cases, a parent will be jailed if there is strong evidence that he or she has been maliciously blocking a relationship with the other parent.
"If the jailing results in changing conduct, if it results in a better relationship with the alienated parent, it's quite possibly justified. The problem is, it doesn't usually work," Atkinson said.
Richard Baumgartner, the children's legal representative in the Grieco case, favored the judge's ruling.
He said Pennsylvania law required that noncustodial parents such as Grieco be allowed visits unless they posed a risk of grave harm to the children.
"When you have a mother who has custody, and has been found by the courts to have alienated her children, and you have a father who isn't a perfect parent seeking visitation, what's the court to do?" Baumgartner asked.
But is such an order in the best interest of the children?
No, said Dr. Janet Johnston, a California researcher noted for her work on high-conflict divorces. While it's understandable for alienated parents to become frustrated and angry when a child refuses to see them, Johnston said, "there is a tendency (by courts) to become arbitrary, punitive and coercive with the child," and courts "may be tempted to impose changes of custody and access arrangements on children that they are not well equipped to handle."
She and other mental health professionals believe that long-term therapy for the child, as well as counseling and support for both parents, is the best way to help children who fear one of the parents.
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Max Baer, who presides over the county's family and juvenile courts, declined to talk about the specifics of the Grieco case, but said he didn't believe alienated children were a result of brainwashing by one parent.
"It's a complex matrix of factors, including the fact that many children want to please the parent with whom they live," Baer said. "And to the extent you live with Mom and Mom hates Dad, to some extent the kid will mirror that."
So are forced visits the answer?
Baer said the answer depended partly on the age and development of the child.
"As a judge, if I'm presented with a healthy 12-year-old with good grades, I have him go see Dad. But a 16-year-old is different. I would not force a 16-year-old to go. A 14-year-old, well, he's on the cusp. I would be careful. I probably would not force it."
Driscoll, who also declined to comment on the specifics of the case, would say only that his court order was not based on Gardner's recommendations alone.
"I did not arrive at (the decision) quickly," Driscoll said. "It was based on all the testimony and the history of the case. I ultimately concluded that it was appropriate to enter such a strong order, which would compel the mother to produce the children for dad's visits."
No sign of improvement
In the year in which "threat therapy" was in effect, no signs emerged to show that it was promoting a healthy relationship between the boys and their father.
Scott contends that the dozen or so visits that took place were "horrible" for the boys, especially Nathan, whose school guidance counselor phoned her after the visits began and said Nathan seemed unusually depressed.
Initially, at least, county officials seemed inclined to blame Scott for any problems. After one weekend visit, the boys were "unusually negative," said Dennis Donahue, director of the court-ordered therapy program for the boys. That behavior, he said, could be "directly attributed to the mother, who is not fulfilling her obligation to bring the boys in a positive frame of mind regarding visits."
Two months later, Donahue wrote to the court again. This time, however, he chastised Grieco over "hitting incidents" that had occurred during a two-week vacation with the boys during the summer of 1997, and told him that he should enroll in a parenting program to learn about appropriate discipline.
Grieco enrolled in the program, but did not go to all the sessions. The "threat therapy" remained in place.
Early this year, a new judge replaced Driscoll, who was transferred to criminal court. Karen Scott's attorney asked that the "threat therapy" order be rescinded, but at the end of January, Judge Rita Hathaway denied her request.
That same month, Nathan wrote a series of essays in his creative writing class at Norwin High School.
In one, he bitterly described how a girl had rejected him. He moved on to "the other torture in my life" -- his parents' divorce, in which his father is "still harassing us through court case after court case."
His essay concluded: "Thus ends this chapter in my life of endless torment."
Two weeks after he wrote those words, Nathan was dead. His mother found him in his room with a belt around his neck.
The coroner's office declined to rule it either a suicide or an accident. "There just wasn't enough evidence either way," Deputy Coroner "Skip" Rusiewicz said.
Shortly afterward, Scott's attorney made a request on behalf of the two surviving boys: a break from visits with their father. She presented Nathan's essays to the court as evidence of his state of mind when he died.
Hathaway rejected that request.
A week after Nathan's funeral, Patrick and Justin were ordered to meet with their father again, at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Greensburg, with Bishop Jeffrey Farr, a church elder, serving as a mediator.
But Scott did want to talk. And on March 16, she decided to go public with her story.
She appeared at a hearing in Harrisburg on custody reform before the state House Judiciary Committee, brought there by a children's rights activist who had learned of her plight.
After describing Nathan's death, she went on to say that Justin and Patrick, who were not present, were "very angry over their lack of rights. This has been ... three years and 99 motions filed by my ex-husband. All forms of visitation were unsuccessful."
While legislators listened in what appeared to be stunned silence, Scott urged them to "give children choices" in custody disputes.
Nathan, she added, had been "feeling no worth because no one listened to him. Right before Nathan died, I found him refusing to look in the mirror at himself. He just felt so useless.
"I implore you to look at the face of my dead son, Nathan, which, by the way, means 'gift from God.' Read his obituary and please understand that the world is not a better place without him."
The friction continues
Last week, Louis Grieco asked the court to jail his ex-wife on contempt charges for violating the "threat therapy" order, after a visit with his two surviving sons in late April ended badly when he argued with Justin. He also complained that Justin had refused to speak with him on the telephone.
As she awaits yet another court ruling, Karen Scott has put her house up for sale.
The family wants out, she said. Reminders of Nathan are too sharp. For weeks after his death, Justin, 14, and Patrick, 12, refused to sleep in their second-floor rooms, opting instead for the first-floor family room.
Sitting in their mother's kitchen recently, they talked about their travails. Karen Scott had left the room, saying she wanted the boys to feel free to speak.
If this was a family in grief, it wasn't immediately obvious. By turns flip and somber, the boys deflected probing questions with a skill obviously honed from countless meetings with judges, therapists and lawyers.
"It's not going to stop until we're 18," said Justin, shrugging his shoulders.
They talked about Louis Grieco, but there was little emotion. They described a man who took them to the movies and the mall and the golf course; who didn't take kindly to backtalk; who "would get in your face with a legal document" if they resisted seeing him.
And what if the courts were to decide that they should live with their father?
"I'm hitting the road. I'm gone," said Justin, leaning back in his chair, his face a blank.
"Me, too," piped up Patrick.
"Yeah," his older brother shot back, with a slight smile. "I'll put you in my pocket."
Part III: Maverick expert exerts wide influence on custody cases
In February, Nathan Grieco, 16, of North Huntingdon was found dead in his bedroom, a belt around his neck. His death came after years of custody disputes between his mother, Karen Scott, and his father, Louis Grieco. The tragedy has raised the question of how courts should treat children who are caught between warring parents. It also has attracted attention because of the involvement of a nationally known, controversial psychiatrist.
When Louis Grieco decided in early 1996 to petition the Westmoreland County Court for full custody of his three sons, he turned for help to one of the most prominent -- and polarizing -- expert witnesses in American child-custody litigation.
Dr. Richard Gardner, a 67-year-old Columbia University psychiatrist, is highly influential in a very private corner of American jurisprudence -- family court, where the most vicious, intractable custody cases are fought behind closed doors, under court seal, only occasionally spilling out into the public domain.
These are the cases experts describe as "failed divorces," where disputes drag on long after the marriage legally ends. Sometimes the disputes are over money, sometimes over control. Sometimes the cases involve a child who hates a parent and won't go on visits, and sometimes, although less frequently than most people believe, the cases involve allegations of sexual abuse.
No sexual abuse accusations were ever made in the Grieco-Scott custody battle, but when the three Grieco boys, Nathan, Justin and Patrick, refused to go on visits with their father, Louis Grieco asked Gardner to step in.
For lawyers representing parents -- mostly fathers -- who are accused of abuse in custody disputes, Gardner is a powerful witness. His resume is impressive. A clinical professor of child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, his early work on the impact of divorce on children has been described as "classic" and "creative."
Since the mid-1980s, however, his ideas about how to treat children in custody disputes have come under increasing criticism by mental health professionals for being scientifically unproven and biased against women.
Gardner also has come under fire for testifying in cases about people he hasn't interviewed, although that doesn't violate any ethical code. Forensic psychiatrists, unlike psychologists, are permitted under American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law guidelines to render opinions about an individual if, "after earnest effort," their attempts to have a personal, face-to-face interview are unsuccessful.
Most of the criticism of Gardner has been directed at a theory he calls "parental alienation syndrome."
He contends that in many divisive custody cases, a parent, usually the mother, vindictively brainwashes a child into making false abuse allegations against the other parent, although he also claims that the syndrome exists only when "the parental programming is combined with the child's own scenarios of disparagement of the vilified parent."
"Although the mothers in these situations may have a variety of motivations for programming their children against their fathers, the most common one relates to the old saying: 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,"' says Gardner in a 1987 book, "The Parental Alienation Syndrome and The Differentiation Between Fabricated and Genuine Sex Abuse."
And in a report filed in the Grieco case, Gardner noted that "PAS mothers have a way of finding therapists, almost invariably women, who reflexively join them in their campaign of denigration of the father ... (and) in some cases even join the mother's paranoid delusional system."
In some cases in which "fanatic" mothers want to limit or cut off visits to the father, he wrote, "I believe that the most important element in these children's therapy is immediate transfer by the court to the home of the so-called hated parent."
Gardner's parental alienation syndrome has been cited increasingly in contested divorces. In Texas, where juries hear civil custody cases, a mother's rights to her children were terminated in 1993 after a jury, citing the syndrome, concluded she had coached her children into making claims of sexual abuse against the father. And in North Carolina, a 14-year-old girl was jailed for three days for refusing to visit her father. The judge in the case relied partly on a psychologist who said the girl was suffering from the syndrome.
Gardner's claims aren't based on standard research methods and haven't been verified in other scientific studies, several other experts have said.
Instead, he bases his theories on nearly 40 years of personal experience as a psychiatrist.
As a result, his articles on parental alienation syndrome rarely appear in mainstream medical publications, which require that such findings be reviewed by a panel of the author's colleagues. Instead, Gardner publishes his own books, videotapes and audiotapes, under the company name Creative Therapeutics.
He declined to be interviewed for this article.
"Most researchers in the field of mental health don't know who he is," said Pamela Ludolph, a psychologist and child abuse expert at the University of Michigan, "because we don't ever see his work in peer-reviewed journals. Most of his theories wouldn't ever get past a peer-review panel."
Still, there are plenty of mental health professionals who believe Gardner is onto something.
"It's been a very hot topic. I get lots of questions about it," said Arnold Sheinvold, a Mechanicsburg, Pa., psychologist who frequently testifies in custody cases and who has lectured on parental alienation at continuing legal education seminars for lawyers.
"Your husband is withholding the mortgage payment. What's the only thing you can withhold? The kids. That's where the kids become a power chip. Mom is in a weaker negotiating position. ... And if you look at the power dynamics of divorce, there are very few chips left except allegations of abuse of children."
Not only is Gardner's parental alienation syndrome hugely popular among certain divorce attorneys, his own testimony is avidly sought. In the high-priced, crowded and contentious field of expert witnesses, Gardner is a phenomenon unto himself. He estimates he has testified in person in at least 300 cases in 24 states, charging hundreds of dollars an hour in fees.
It is money well spent, some lawyers say.
"I think Gardner's science is spurious; nonetheless, it is useful," said Christopher Emley, a San Francisco lawyer and president of the California Chapter of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts.
"I don't think there's a whole lot of harm in defense attorneys saying (the mother) is a parent alienator and she fits the items on the (Gardner) profile (of symptoms)."
When women make false abuse allegations, Emley says, Gardner's theory helps, because "in my experience, the judge needs to be nudged hard to see the impure motivations and ulterior motives that are behind these abuse charges."
Others, though, say Gardner's prejudice against women undermines his theory.
His "gender bias infects the syndrome and makes it a powerful tool to undermine credibility of women who allege child sexual abuse," said John E.B. Myers, a legal expert on child abuse at the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, Calif.
For a time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gardner was one of the most widely quoted experts on television and in print whenever a sex abuse scandal made headlines. When several prominent child molestation cases against day care workers collapsed in the 1980s, Gardner's opinion was eagerly sought by journalists. During the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow custody battle in the early 1990s, Gardner was quoted in Newsweek, People and on NBC's "Prime Time Live."
His thesis: The country was in the grip of a wave of mass sexual-abuse hysteria, fueled by vindictive women falsely accusing fathers or child-care workers of abuse.
And while his media presence seems to have faded somewhat in recent years, after news reports began raising questions about his theories, Gardner has remained busy, traveling the country and testifying in cases involving custody disputes, child molestation, and even murder.
In 1988, Gardner appeared in Maryland on behalf of Marc Friedlander, who was accused of shooting his wife during a drop-off of their children for visitation. Citing parental alienation syndrome, Gardner testified that Friedlander's wife Zitta had so frustrated and enraged him after 27 months of blocking visits with their children that he became "acutely psychotic and murdered his wife."
Friedlander should be found guilty of temporary insanity, Gardner said. A jury disagreed, and found him guilty of first degree murder.
Not all judges are impressed by Gardner.
While Judge John Driscoll of Westmoreland County Common Pleas Court relied partly on Gardner's theories in his ruling on the Grieco case, other judges have reacted unfavorably.
Jacqueline Silberman, who presides over New York state's matrimonial division, stated in a 1991 case that "for the record, I have never heard a worse hired gun in my life than Dr. Gardner," and then wondered "what he is doing at Columbia University."
Gardner, in a later court appearance, countered by calling Silberman "crazy."
Sol Gothard, an appellate court judge for Louisiana's Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, complains that too many judges don't bother to look into Gardner's record, relying on his resume instead.
"Too many judges making critical decisions relative to child custody do not have the slightest idea of how Dr. Richard Gardner has been thoroughly discredited by the professionals in this area, the social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists," Gothard said.
Michael McCurley, this year's president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, has used Gardner as a witness several times, but believes "that his credibility has waned over the years." Still, he credits him for taking on a politically unpopular cause, particularly on the matter of child sex abuse allegations.
||Gardner's controversial stance on incest
Many divorce lawyers and even some therapists who hire Dr. Richard Gardner, or rely on his ''parental alienation syndrome,'' are unaware of his most controversial writings -- on how to deal with incest in families.
"There was a basic movement in this country that children never lie, and he was taking the position that allegations of sex abuse can be implanted in a child's mind, and no one wanted to hear that," McCurley said.
In five years, he said, the debate over Richard Gardner and other controversial experts may well be moot, because McCurley believes judges and juries are starting to get tired of dueling witnesses hired by the opposing parties.
What's important in any case are the facts, he said.
"If something has occurred, you don't have to put a special label on the truth," he said. "Don't strap a syndrome on it ... a fancy label does not the truth make."
Gardner's controversial stance on incest
Many divorce lawyers and even some therapists who hire Dr. Richard Gardner, or rely on his ''parental alienation syndrome,'' are unaware of his most controversial writings -- on how to deal with incest in families.
If a sexual abuse charge is made in a custody case, Gardner usually dismisses it as false. But if such a charge surfaces in an intact family, Gardner believes that most of the time, the incest allegation is true.
But Gardner also thinks that society treats adults who have sex with children too harshly.
In his 1992 book, ''True and False Accusations of Child Sex Abuse,'' Gardner writes that pedophilia -- adults having sexual relations with children -- ''is a widespread and accepted practice among literally billions of people.''
While sexual activity with children is ''reprehensible'' and exploitative, he noted in another book, ''Sex Abuse Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited,'' Gardner goes on to say:
''What I am against is the excessively moralistic and punitive reaction that many members of our society have toward pedophiles ... (going) far beyond what I consider to be the gravity of the crime.''
Such cases aren't always as damaging to the child as some believe, he wrote. If anything, he claims, ''legal process trauma'' -- children being interviewed by police, lawyers and therapists -- often does more damage than the abuse itself.
Reporting the abuse and punishing the pedophilic parent shouldn't be the first response, he says. Rather, the focus should be on treatment.
Even then, Gardner believes treatment is needed only if the child is having difficulties at home, in school and with friends -- and the whole family should see the therapist, who should not assume that the encounter was damaging to the child.
Gardner also contends that while ''the sexually abused child is generally considered to be the victim,'' children may sometimes ''seduce'' the adult into abusing them.
John E.B. Myers, a legal expert on child abuse evidence-gathering, said Gardner's attitudes were rooted in older views of incest and pedophilia.
Before the 1970s and the advent of child protection laws, sex researchers like Alfred Kinsey also said incest was not necessarily harmful. In many cases the mother was blamed for the problem: If she was frigid, hostile and unloving, it could drive the father to seek sexual satisfaction with the children, the theory went.
These days, most therapists and law enforcement officials take a much harder line toward child molestation. It's treated as a serious crime.
But Gardner has written that some judges and prosecutors who pursue such charges may be satisfying their own pedophilic urges.
Judges ''may have repressed pedophilic impulses over which there is suppression, repression, and guilt. Inquiry into the details of the case provides voyeuristic and vicarious gratifications,'' he wrote in ''Sex Abuse Hysteria.''
In fact, Gardner says, ''all of us have some pedophilia within us.''
About the Authors
||Mackenzie Carpenter, 43, is a writer for the Post-Gazette's issues team. Her most recent project, a long with photographer Allan Detrich, was an award-winning five-part series, "Children of the Underground." She covered national and state politics for United Press International and as a producer/reporter for public television stations in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of Trinity College, and has a master's degree in studies of law from Yale Law School|
||Ginny Kopas, 49, a North Huntingdon resident, is the Post-Gazette's Westmoreland County bureau chief. Before coming to Pittsburgh in 1994, she was editor of the Standard-Observer in Irwin and the Daily Courier in Connellsville and was deputy managing editor of the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown. She also worked as a consultant for Allbritton Communications in Washington, D.C. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and winner of several communications awards.|
Copyright © 2006 Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Fair Use Notice