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Published on November 12, 2006 by The Times Dispatch

Theory Issue In Custody Dispute
by Kiran Krishnamurthy

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SPOTSYLVANIA -- Tina Wilson says she was following an attorney's advice when she took her daughter to a domestic-violence shelter on Father's Day.

She was desperate. A judge had granted sole custody to her former husband, who had been convicted of assaulting Wilson six years earlier and who is now the subject of physical- and sexual-abuse allegations leveled by their 9-year-old daughter.

Wilson says her daughter kicked, begged and screamed not to go back to her father, who had accused Wilson of alienating him from the girl. "Your dad can't come in here,'" Wilson said she assured the girl at the shelter.

But authorities located Wilson and her daughter at the Williamsburg-area shelter. A police officer took away the girl, who was returned to her father. Wilson alleges that a social worker violated policies for protecting those who seek refuge at a shelter, but testimony during a subsequent court hearing also suggests the possibility of miscommunication.

Wilson, 47, appeared in a Spotsylvania County courtroom a few days later to explain the violation of the visitation agreement.

"My daughter had disclosed to me that her father had threatened her life and my life," she told Circuit Judge Ernest P. Gates, a retired judge from Chesterfield County who was appointed to hear the case after Wilson had appealed the custody ruling from Spotsylvania Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court.

The judge said he did not want to decide final custody until the girl had been evaluated by a psychologist, preferably one agreed to by both parents. At the same time, he restricted Wilson to supervised visitation with the girl, saying she had violated the standing court order.

A hearing for the case is scheduled for Wednesday.

The Times-Dispatch is not naming the father to protect the girl's identity. He has denied the allegations and has not responded to repeated calls from The Times-Dispatch. Wilson has changed her last name.

Wilson says that in her fight to regain custody of her daughter, she has discovered she is confronting a controversial psychological theory known as parental alienation syndrome. The term was devised by a psychiatrist who also has expressed controversial views on pedophilia. The theory has not been formally adopted by the medical establishment.

Parental alienation syndrome, or PAS, holds a parent responsible for brainwashing a child into becoming indifferent or hostile to the other parent and, sometimes, manufacturing abuse allegations. Parental alienation also is at issue in a separate Hanover County case that a mother has appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Wilson said she has filed a formal complaint with Virginia's Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission against Joseph J. Ellis, presiding judge of Spotsylvania Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. Ellis had awarded custody to the father in 2005, saying the allegations of sexual abuse were not "particularly credible."

"People need to know this is the outcome they could face if they try to protect their child from an abusive parent," she said. "I've had to be educated the hard way."

. . .

Critics of parental alienation syndrome note that the psychiatrist who coined the term, Dr. Richard A. Gardner, also wrote that pedophilia serves procreative purposes, that children exhibit flirtatious characteristics, and that children seek affection and therefore aren't necessarily psychologically traumatized by a sexual encounter with an adult who expresses tenderness.

Gardner committed suicide in 2003 by stabbing himself multiple times, according to news accounts.

Eileen King, a spokeswoman for Houston-based Justice for Children, calls PAS a "pseudoscientific theory" that some lawyers use to divert judges' attention away from abuse allegations. King also says judges often are seeking to reach a compromise between two battling parents and that PAS is a ready explanation for judges trying to determine why the parent alleging abuse is so intractable.

"Alienation is a way to explain that other parent's difficultness," she said, referring to a parent who support a child's allegations. "They're automatically the unfriendly parent, and that puts them on the wrong side of where the judge wants them to be."

King, who leads the organization's East Coast office in Washington, says PAS has been an issue in as many as 90 percent of the 250-plus cases she has handled in the past five years.

On the other side, advocates for parents alleging they have been alienated say manipulative parents will go to extreme lengths to hurt a former spouse, including making false abuse allegations.

Judi Smith-Phelps, a board member of Minneapolis-based Fathers 4 Justice US, says mothers most often employ alienation tactics. She dismisses the founder of PAS but cites a study that compared alienating parents with cult leaders.

"These women who exhibit these [parental alienation] characteristics are so bent on destroying their ex," she said. "These people are cruel and calculating. . . . They'll coach their children to say anything."

In the Hanover case, Virginia's appeals court in July sided with a lower-court ruling granting sole custody to a father after the mother reported suspected sex-abuse allegations that were later determined to be unfounded. The mother's appeal claims that she was penalized for reporting suspected abuse. The appeals court said she lost custody not for reporting the allegations, but for persisting after claims were deemed unfounded.

Cullen Seltzer, an attorney for the Hanover mother, argues that parents should not be penalized for acting in their children's best interests. He also contends the state's high court needs to clarify a provision in state law that permits a judge to consider whether a parent supports a child's contact and relationship with the other parent in custody matters.

The Supreme Court has not decided whether to hear the appeal.

. . .

Wilson, who has moved from Spotsylvania to the Richmond area, says her ordeal began after her daughter, then 7, told a therapist in January 2005 that she had been physically abused. Wilson said her daughter had been acting aggressively, wetting the bed and having night terrors.

Wilson and one of her attorneys say Spotsylvania social services officials failed to properly investigate the girl's claim.

The department's primary investigator in the case later testified that the girl at one point recanted the physical-abuse allegation, but not the sex abuse claim; that she did not review with the girl a drawing the child had made depicting the alleged sexual abuse; that she never visited the father's house to confirm whether the computer room where the girl claimed to be molested actually existed; and that she had not referred the girl for a medical examination to help determine whether the girl had been molested because she did not want to traumatize the child.

"They added two and two together and got three. It's inexplicable," said Richard Ducote, a renowned lawyer for battered women, particularly mothers involved in child custody matters. He is one of Wilson's attorneys.

The investigator also testified she was not aware of Gardner's opinions on pedophilia but that she agrees with and uses in her work the concept of parental alienation syndrome. Repeated efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.

During an April 2005 court hearing, the juvenile court judge, Ellis, told Wilson and the father that he did not know whom to believe. The judge placed their daughter in foster care.

"They snatched my child from under me like it was Nazi Germany," Wilson said.

Wilson acknowledges her daughter did not make additional allegations of abuse during the few months she was in foster care. But, in Wilson's view, the child stopped talking about abuse in hopes of being returned to her mother. Ellis later said in court that the child had "flowered" when removed from both of her parents.

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