How seriously are allegations of parental alienation taken by family courts today?

Parental alienation arises in family court cases generally in two contexts:

  • When abusive men attempt to alienate the children from their mother as part of their ongoing campaign of abuse against their former partner
  • When women who have left abusive men engage in protective mothering in an attempt to ensure their children are kept safe from an abusive father

The ways in which the court responds to these two contexts is very different, and we will look at both in this FAQ.

The Invention of “Parental Alienation Syndrome”

It was in the 1980s, thanks to the work of psychiatrist Richard Gardner, that  the notion of parental alienation first began to rear its head in custody and access cases. It was Gardner’s position that 90% of children in custody litigation suffered from what he called the disorder of parental alienation syndrome (PAS). He claimed that this was a means by which vengeful mothers used false allegations of child abuse – particularly sexual abuse – to get custody of their children.

Gardner’s work was highly misogynist, and he used extremely inflammatory language when describing mothers and the actions he claimed they took to alienate their children from their father, alleging that mothers enlisted the children in their “campaign of denigration and vilification of the father” by “brainwashing and programming” them.

He suggested extreme responses to this so-called disorder, including total termination of the child’s relationship with her/his mother as well as deprogramming for the child.

It should be noted that Gardner’s general views about sexuality were extreme. He claimed that women may “gain pleasure from being beaten, bound and otherwise made to suffer as the price they are willing to pay for gaining the gratification of receiving the sperm.” He also believed that adult-child sex was not intrinsically harmful to children because it increases a child’s early sexualisation which, in turn, increases the likelihood that the child’s genes will be passed on at an early age.

He opposed mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. In fact, in one interview, he took the position that if a child were to tell his/her mother that s/he had been sexually abused by the father, the mother should tell the child she did not believe her/him and that she would physically punish the child for having said this.

Yet, despite this, and the fact that there is no empirical evidence to support the existence of PAS, Gardner’s ideas about parental alienation held enormous influence in custody and access cases for a number of years and continue to play a role.

Indeed, the empirical evidence says something quite different. Well-regarded research has established that allegations of child sexual abuse are validated about 70% of the time and that the real problem is the very high rate of false denials by abusers.

Other research has shown that: “Where PAS presumes that protective mothers are vengeful and pathologically ‘program’ their children, it is not women and children – but noncustodial fathers – who are most likely to fabricate child maltreatment claims.”[i]

A 1998 Canadian study found that only 12% of child abuse or neglect allegations made in the course of custody and access proceedings were intentionally false and that the primary source of these intentionally false reports was the non-custodial parent (most often the father). In only 2 cases out of 308 was the intentionally false claim made by a custodial mother.

PAS has been rejected time and again by various psychiatric and other professional associations, and yet it and versions of it continue to influence custody and access cases to this day.

From PAS to Parental Alienation

As support for Gardner’s PAS diminished, support for something called simply parental alienation (or, by some, “the alienated child”) began to grow.

This approach, which still presenting some problems, brings a more nuanced understanding of the fact that child/parent relationships exist on a spectrum. This approach recognizes that some children are closer to one parent than the other as a matter of personality or shared interests and not because one parent has set out to alienate a child from the other parent. PA also recognizes that sometimes one parent does interfere in the other parent’s access to the children because of legitimate child safety concerns  and that sometimes children alienate themselves from one parent because of the actions of that parent.

Much of this work was done by Janet Johnston, and it concluded that alienation of children by one parent happened in a minority of children involved in custody cases.

What this means in cases of woman abuse

The impact of both PAS and to a lesser extent PA on custody and access cases where woman abuse is a factor has been enormous.

It is not unusual for a woman who has left an abusive relationship to have concerns about her former partner’s parenting. He may have been abusive directly to the children during the relationship, but even where he has not, her concerns are legitimate. It is not uncommon for an abusive man to have been an uninvolved parent during the relationship. He may have threatened to harm or take the children as a means of keeping the woman from leaving him. She may worry that the children will be anxious or uncomfortable alone with their father because they have been exposed to his abuse of her prior to separation. She may think he will try to draw the children into the adult situation by quizzing them about her activities, telling him lies about why the relationship ended, trying to get them to take his side in the dispute and so on. The woman may be concerned that, without her presence, the father will not be able to manage the children, will become frustrated with them and will resort to emotional or physical violence to keep them “under control.” She may also fear that her former partner will enter another relationship and expose the children to his abuse of that partner.

Any combination of these concerns can lead a mother to engage in protective parenting which, in the hands of an abuser, can be turned into allegations that she is attempting to alienate the children from him.

Unfortunately, all too often when this happens, the court’s attention becomes distracted by the parental alienation allegation and ignores the mother’s claims of spousal abuse. This can then influence the direction of any parenting assessment that is undertaken.

Risks to the children and the mother of arrangements such as shared or joint custody, extensive access, unsupervised exchanges and the like are not brought to the attention of the court when the focus is placed, incorrectly on the alienation allegation.

In effect, the father enjoys a second benefit of his abusive behaviour because he can now use the impact of his abuse (which leads to the mother’s protective parenting) as the basis for his claim that his children have been alienated from him by their mother.

At the same time, the mother’s protective measures are profoundly misunderstood by the courts in the face of alienation allegations to the extent that warm, involved parenting can become twisted to look like an attempt to alienate the children from their father.

As Joan Meier writes: “Such discussions are more than sufficient to ensure that whenever a mother and child have ambivalence about the children’s father, and certainly in most cases where mothers allege abuse, virtually any loving parenting by the mother can be labeled a form of alienation.

This can also play out when the man continues his abuse by trying to alienate the children from their mother.  As Janet Johnston and Joan Kelly write about their research findings:

While a history of domestic violence did not predict children’s rejection of a parent directly . . . .[m]en who engaged in alienating behaviors (i.e. demeaning a child’s mother) were more likely to have perpetrated domestic violence against their spouses, indicating that this kind of psychological control of their child could be viewed as an extension of their physically abusive and controlling behavior.[ii]

[i] Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: A Research Review. VAWnet.org, September 2013, p. 4

[ii] Commentary on Walker, Brantley and Rigsbee’s (2004) ‘A Critical Analysis of Parental Alienation Syndrome and Its Admissibility in the Family Court.’, Janet Johnston and Joan Kelly (2004). Journal of Child Custody, 1(4), 77 – 89.

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