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.”
Claiming parental alienation has proven quite successful for abusers. In the first study of its kind, Meier and Sean Dickson reviewed 238 published opinions from around the country. The results were startling. When courts believed a father’s claim of alienation, fathers won almost every time, regardless of whether or not the mother reported abuse. Mostly stunningly, even when the court believed that abuse occurred, the alienation claim trumped the abuse claim. In the seven cases where the court believed the abuse claims (five involving domestic violence, one physical abuse, and one both), the father won custody in every case.
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…” Moreover, studies have identified “a trend toward favoring fathers, in contrast to widespread assumptions that mothers are favored in custody litigation.”
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.