May 3, 2010
Parental Alienation Syndrome refers to a disorder in which a child, on an ongoing basis, belittles and insults one parent without justification, due to a combination of factors, including indoctrination by the other parent (almost exclusively as part of a child custody dispute) and the child’s own attempts to denigrate the target parent. There is no doubt that this disorder exists both in my caseload and in my personal experience.
However, the extent to which the disorder exists is highly disputed. Often, the disorder is blamed for a broken parental relationship, when the real blame is abuse or neglect. So much so that Courts presume that a claim of Parental Alienation Syndrome is synonymous with a lack of personal insight. Moreover, the Courts often see cases in which a misguided claim of Parental Alienation Syndrome goes hand in hand with a lack of amenability towards therapeutic treatment.
The controversy surrounding Parental Alienation Syndrome is not exclusive to the legal system. Psychological experts also dispute the validity of P.A.S. as a diagnosis. And if there is a legitimate diagnosis of P.A.S., what can be done with that diagnosis, if the favored parent and the child are unwilling to participate in meaningful family therapy?
The truth is that it is likely that raising the possibility of Parental Alienation Syndrome will sabotage a custody case. That does not mean that the alienated parent needs to give up all hopes of repairing the parent/child relationship. The trick is to litigate the case without placing a label or a diagnosis on it. It is important to identify the problems associated with the custodial arrangement without diagnosing the problem and developing a focused proposal to repair the relationship with the child that does not blame the child or the other parent.
When I litigate these cases I focus on establishing the parenting problem through concrete proof. I ask my clients to maintain calendars. I ask them to document their efforts to obtain information about their child’s life. I ask them to keep the discussions with the other parent on topic and civil. If they are refused parenting time outright, I ask them to document the refusal. If the children are simply not present, I ask them to obtain proof that they were in the neighborhood (to counter a common argument that the alienated parent did not show up for parenting time). Phone records can be used to demonstrate efforts to call.
Over time, with enough court intervention, high quality, concrete proof can make a huge difference. In Minnesota, for example, one of the basis for obtaining a change in custody is that the other parent has engaged in a pattern of conduct that denies the alienated parent from exercising custodial rights. In my experience, this has never happened overnight. And, if the situation is truly one of Parental Alienation Syndrome, it could be argued that it would not be in the child’s best interest to change custody unless the change were graduated and supported by appropriate therapy.
Courts do not usually change custody without first attempting a number of other “fixes.” The Court will first attempt to clarify a visitation order to ensure that it is clear enough to enforce. Often, where there appears to be a problem with the child’s willingness to attend parenting time, the Court will order some individual or family therapy. If the problem persists, the Court may step up the therapeutic intervention to include both parents.
Thus, my usual focus when I see a viable claim of Parental Alienation Syndrome is to obtain the Court’s assistance to clarify the existing parenting schedule and obtain appropriate therapeutic intervention. I will also sometimes ask for the appointment of a guardian ad litem, who is an individual appointed by the court to represent the child’s best interests. I do not use the phrase Parental Alienation Syndrome.