Placing children with the parent that abused them: The problematic theory of parental alienation

Maya Tsimhoni: Detroit Free Press

An unproven–and mostly discredited–theory is encouraging family court judges to award custody–against children’s wishes–to the parent that has been accused of harming them. Moreover, this theory of “parental alienation” has “spawned a cottage industry of so-called family reunification camps that are making big profits from broken families.” That’s the message of a stunning report by the Center for Investigative Journalism aired on public radio’s Reveal program.

The Reveal broadcast focused on two custody cases in which the judge ordered children placed against their will with the parent that they claimed was abusive. In one case, the judge sent a teenage boy to juvenile detention because he was not making sufficient efforts to get along with his mother. He and his sister were then sent to live with their father and allowed no contact with their mother for a period of  three years. In the other case, a fourteen-year old girl who said her mother was emotionally abuse and wanted to live with her father was sent to a “reunification camp” for ten months at her parents’ expense. Her mother was given full custody and the teen was separated from her father father for four years.  The judges in both cases based their decisions on a theory called “parental alienation.”

Parental alienation,” originally “Parental alienation syndrome (PAS),” was the brainchild of Richard Gardner, a child psychiatrist who developed it to help fathers fight abuse claims in custody disputes. In its current iteration, parental alienation describes a parent’s attempt to turn the children against another parent in a custody dispute. A charge of parental alienation is often deployed by a parent who has been accused of abuse, allowing that parent to turn the tables and accuses the other parent of brainwashing the children. The theory encourages judges to remove children from the parent with whom they are bonded because that parent is believed to have alienated them against the other parent.

According to Joan Meier, a leading researcher in the field of domestic violence and custody cases, there is little evidence to support the idea that “parental alienation” due to manipulation by one parent is a common occurrence. However, invoking parental alienation allows an abusive parent  to portray a protective parent as a vengeful liar who is manipulating the children by implanting false memories of abuse.  The theory creates a “paradoxically disastrous dynamic“: if an abuser can convince a court that the children’s attitudes reflect parental alienation, he can actually benefit from his abuse.

The Reveal story was misleading in one respect. While acknowledging that the charge of alienation is overwhelmingly used by fathers against mothers, the story focused on two families in which the mothers used the charge to take custody from the fathers. Much more common are stories like the following:

  • In August 2018, six-year-old twin boys were ordered removed from the sole custody of their mother (with whom they had lived for five years) and placed with their father, who was alleged to have physically and sexually abused them for years. The father, an Air Force colonel with a traumatic brain injury, had acknowledged problems with controlling his anger and sexual impulses. Yet a family court judge in Montgomery County, Maryland gave sole custody to the father, voicing the belief that the boys’ mother had manipulated them into making five allegations of abuse–even though such fabricated abuse allegations from young children are  rare.
  • The divorce case of Omer Tsimhoni and his ex-wife, Maya Eibschitz-Tsimhoni of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, drew international attention in 2015 when the judged locked up their three children, ages 9, 11, and 14, because they refused to have lunch with their father. The children spent more than two weeks in juvenile detention before the judge released them after public outcry.  The mother had claimed the children were estranged from their father because he physically and verbally abused them, and the father accused her of alienating the children. Later, the father was given temporary custody and the children did not see their mother for almost nine months. The mother was finally given primary custody by a new judge in June 2016.

How do judges make these decisions, which often seem cruel and contrary to common sense? According to Meier, many lack understanding of domestic violence and child abuse. Moreover, they often rely on neutral evaluators who also also lack “meaningful knowledge or expertise in domestic violence and abuse. Adding to this ignorance is the emphasis in family courts and mental health training on the importance of children retaining relationships with noncustodial parents after divorce and a consequent emphasis on “co-parenting,” which often reinforces the parental alienation hypothesis.

Unfortunately, there is no data to indicate how often parental alienation plays a part in child custody decisions. But according to Joan Meier,  “parental alienation remains a dominant issue in many, if not most, custody cases in which a mother has alleged that a father was abusive.”According to Meier, the increasing use of parental alienation theory is part of a broader “trend toward reversal of custody from protective mothers to allegedly abusive fathers…”

Thankfully, it  appears that due to media coverage and the work of scholars and activists, awareness about the use of parental alienation theory is growing among the public, child advocates, and policymakers. After eight years of advocacy, the House passed a Concurrent Resolution last fall that states that “child safety is the first priority of custody and parenting adjudications, and courts should resolve safety risks and claims of family violence before assessing other best interest factors.” The resolution also calls for higher standards for evidence and for the “experts” who testify in court and calls on Congress to schedule hearings on family court practices with regard to children’s safety and civil rights. According to Joan Meier, this resolution is “the perfect springboard” for local activists to take to their legislators and ask for similar changes at the local level, where the family courts actually operate.

DV LEAP, an advocacy organization founded by Joan Meier, and other organizations are also fighting for the rights of protective parents and abused children in court.  On March 22, DV LEAP and many other organizations filed a groundbreaking brief with the New York State Court of Appeals that is the first documented collaboration between domestic violence and child maltreatment professionals on parental alienation theory. According to Meier, this brief has the potential to be a catalyst for national change.

This post is a departure for Child Welfare Monitor. We have not touched on many issues outside the arena of public child welfare. But parental alienation theory is yet another example of powerful adults ignoring the best interests and expressed wishes of children, and putting them at risk due to ignorance or mistaken beliefs. Those of us who care about abused and neglected children need to expand our awareness and activity to include all children whom our institutions fail to protect from maltreatment.



12 thoughts on “Placing children with the parent that abused them: The problematic theory of parental alienation

  1. Marie, This is a superbly written piece: well researched, clear and cogent, without hyperbole or dramatism. I began writing on this subject many years ago after suffering the tragic loss of my daughter who was sexually abused by her father, an Orthodox Jew with strong political ties, who convinced the court to remove my daughter Sherry from my custody and place her in foster care for 18 months until he felt ready to have her in his custody. My daughter was cruelly separated from me and in foster care fell victim to child exploitation. Her case became the focus of legislative hearings. She coped with her abuse in an unusual way and ironically last year when you reached out to me after my piece appeared in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal you had just posted a comment about my daughter’s piece in Time Magazine. Talk about 6 degrees of separation??? I’d love to chat with you when you have a moment. Thanks again for the excellent piece on the damage and destruction to children’s lives resulting from flawed and misguided theories regarding parental alienation. We need more sound thinking persons like yourself! Amy


    1. Amy,

      I believe you might be ‘the” Amy Neustein. Hello fan girl crush? Is that “THE” Amy Neustein Im thinking of?

      In the past year, I lost custody of my daughter after she told me she was physically and sexually abused by her father so I fought to keep her safe. Child services did not believe me from the start and helped her father get custody. They have isolated my child from me and are trying to strengthen the bond with him, while trying to weaken mine. I was the one that raised her. They put me on trial instead of him. Unfortunately, I do not have the funds to fight like my daughter needs me to. I am in the lowest poverty bracket and the lawyer I have is through child services, who also does not believe me. They think I made it all up and forced her time after time to see him and then live with him. My heart is broken and I used to think I was alone until I started looking for support on this subject because I felt like I lived in a twilight zone where there is no logic or reasoning and nothing made sense. Everything in the court was backwards and went the wrong way. Anyone outside the system that was involved with our case was completely flabbergasted by how this was even happening. Her father also used “parent alienation” and “brainwashing” after filing for full custody and the child services unfounded reports on top of that led the court to eating up the PA and handing custody to him, while lashing out at me like I was a criminal. I discovered a book that has helped me beyond any words I could describe and it has been such a healing to me as a mother who lost her child to a sexual predator that hides under the radar. The book speaks about how this has happened for decades to thousands of cases of women. I have found many women through this healing journey that also happened to. It is still happening and appears to have no end in sight. They unleash them into the community and put other children in danger.

      Im sorry about your loss of your daughter. It seems the loudest warriors are the ones trying to fight and make sense of this tragedy. I am in the fighting process, but I am losing at every door so far.

      While Im not grateful for their experiences, I am grateful to have so many women that are or have stood in my shoes because the support is what really gets you through this. Without the support and realization that this happens to so many, I think I would have had a nervous breakdown. The process makes you feel like you are the problem and going crazy. Some days I had to question my own sanity and I volunteered myself for a psychological evaluation because of this. Turns out, I am completely sane and lucid. There was never any mental illness.

      I am still lost in the process, but I have not finished the book yet so I am hoping I will gain more knowledge once I finish. So far, the book feels like I could have wrote it myself. I feel like someone took my own situation and plopped it into a book. It is uncanny how much you can read this book and say to yourself, “Yes! YES!” in agreement to all that is described.


      Fan Girl Mother


      1. Fan girl mother, you write as if your story is mine! Almost to the letter! My question? How long do we sit back and just write about this before we come together as a collective to publicly fight back for our children?


  2. My daughter was sexually assaulted by her own father with medical records of STD on a 3 yo child, this was ignored by Richmond County New York family court judge Peter DeLizzo and my daughter was ordered by court unsupervised visitations with her abuser. My daughter needed therapy in Russian, because she spoke Russian, so I took her to Russia for therapy, during therapy sessions it was revealed that child was sexually abused authorities were notified and criminal case was open against the father, who is a Russian citizen, but lives in NY on green card basis. Now the father being charged with incest, child molestation, sexual assault of a toddler with violence and bodily harm and the judge of Richmond County New York family court is well aware of these charges, so the alien fugitive wile charged for gruesome crimes against a minor, applied for custody modification. At this point I have full custody, that I got in 2016, in 2017 my daughter disclosed sexual abuse, in 2018 the father was charged 8n his country of citizenship. While in NY there was a trial about custody modification where I was unable to be present due to being in Russia, the judge denied me a possibility to be present via telephone or Skype, denied my right to present evidence and file any paperwork with court clerk and basically held a bias one sided trial. The verdict of his ruling will be presented May 21st 2019. The father is still charged and awaites a red sticker for worldwide search through Interpol. When I had a lawyer, she told me that the judge is favoring the father despite all of the above stated, so I don’t have hopes that I will be able to keep my custody, I am 99% sure that charged pedophile will be granted custody.


    1. I am so sorry about your situation. Have you been in touch with Joan Meier, Executive Director of DV LEAP? They may be able to help with an appeal if necessary. I am hoping for a good verdict for you.


  3. You clearly need better research and to become more respectful of diverse experiences The outlier case is not an excuse to coddle people who alienate non-custodial parents from their children.


  4. My grandson was only 5 pounds 4 ounces when his father broke his femur. Social services stepped in and gave him supervised visits with his parents supervising his visits with the baby. He was charged and sentenced for felony child abuse and now he petitioned the court for unsupervised visits. He has prior child abuse charges as a repeat offender and domestic abuse charges as a repeat offender. The social workers say that he is compliant but that is because they keep modifying his compliance. He is still on the ankle bracelet for the felony child abuse charge. We don’t know what to do , but we have a lot of paperwork proving that the father and his mother lie to county programs and the previous social worker. Do you have any ideas to stop this injustice from continuing.


    1. I’m so sorry to hear of this. Unfortunately I’m not an expert and was trying to publicize this issue that was actually new to me. You might want to get in touch with DV LEAP at


  5. Great article about a subset of cases where abusers invoke that theory. However, there are many cases of parental alienation, and the target parent is not an abuser. I have seen many cases of both varieties, and they are quite hard to distinguish.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s