Parental Alienation and Custody Decisions

In most cases, one parent or the other has said something inappropriate to the child about the other parent.  We all have human failings, but most of these isolated incidents do not have long-term consequences for the child.  Parental alienation, however, has been described as “a set of strategies, including bad-mouthing the other parent, limiting contact with that parent, erasing the other parent from the life and mind of the child (forbidding discussion and pictures of the other parent), forcing the child to reject the other parent, creating the impression that the other parent is dangerous, forcing the child to choose between the parents by means of threats of withdrawal of affection, and belittling and limiting contact with the extended family of the targeted parent.”  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce/201304/the-impact-parental-alienation-children.   In the same article it was noted that parental alienation is involved in 11 to 15% of divorces involving children. There seems to be consensus that these types of strategies are simply another form of emotional abuse. In our experience, in some cases the alienating behavior is pretty clear, but in other cases it is somewhat subtle. For example, one parent may act sad and make the child feel sad because the child is going to visit the other parent without ever making negative comments about the other parent.    The potential impacts of parental alienation are substantial.  The child not only loses one parent, but also may have difficult relationships with the alienating parent and also their own children in the future.

A recent article in the Huntington Post described the impact of parental alienation claims in custody cases.  https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-parental-alienation-syndrome-is-changing-custody_us_5939d367e4b094fa859f1719. The article describes the controversy around whether this is truly a syndrome or not and how to define and diagnose it.  According to the article, there are a number of cases where one parent is accused of domestic violence, but then, in turn accuses the other parent of alienation. In a surprising amount of these cases the person making the allegations of parental alienation was successful in getting custody.  According to the article, “the American Psychological Association has no official position on parental alienation syndrome, but notes a lack of supportive data.”  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not recognize the syndrome either.  In some cases, court appointed professionals such as a Guardian ad litem may well believe that some type of parental alienation has occurred, but believe that the damage is irreparable and that forcing the child to live with the non-alienating parent could cause the child more damage.

These cases are extremely complex.  One parent may attempt to manipulate other professionals, such as the child’s therapist or court-appointed professional such as Guardian ad litems.  It is critical to get any documentation about the child’s medical records, mental health records, and potentially educational records to determine what allegations are being made by the child and what allegations are really being made by one parent.  A parent may report certain behaviors to a therapist which are not actually confirmed by the child. In these cases, it is critical that the other parent have the opportunity to inform the mental health professional that these behaviors are not going on or not as often as the other parent is representing.  I’m aware of at least two cases in our office where parental alienation was so bad that this forced the court to award custody to the non-alienating parent.  There are number of Indiana cases where parental alienation has been an important factor in the resolving custody and parenting issues as well.

Mattox & Wilson

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