Parental Alienation Syndrome and The Family Law Courts

James  W. Evans, Attorney, Evans Family Law Group
Charles Verdict, Paralegal, Evans Family Law Group

Published May 21, 2010

Often parents of children confront the challenge of a former spouse or biological parent of their child, who exhibit a pattern of behaviors that attempt to recruit the child into alignment with one parent, at the expense of the relationship of the other parent and the child. While this common description focuses traditionally on one parent seeking to gain the child’s loyalty at the expense of the other, there are often cases where both parents can engage in the behavior, or one parent creates alienation when they unilaterally withdraw from the child due to a host of factors.

This phenomenon was coined by psychologist Richard Gardner in the late 1980’s as Parental Alienation Syndrome, or “PAS,” which has since become a contentious issue among litigants, members of the family law bar and psychological professionals. Dr. Gardner described the syndrome as a disturbance where the primary manifestation is a child’s unjustified campaign of rejection or belittlement of one parent due to the influence of the other parent.

Amid the swirl of allegations of a lawsuit for divorce or custody, where other issues are at stake other than custody such as fault, wasted marital property or other cause of action, one of the most troubling and elusive aspects of family law is to pin down and counteract the deleterious effects of PAS on children and the ultimate conclusion of the Court in determining the best interests of the child at issue.

Dr. Gardner’s groundbreaking work alerted Family law professionals to the very regular aspects, predictability and remedies for Parental Alienation in child custody contests. His work has been further refined and extended following his death in 2002 by additional psychologists, such as Dr. Janet Johnson who sees PAS as more often the confluence of both parents contributing to the presence of Parental Alienation Syndrome in the life of an affected child. Dr. Johnson makes a distinction that it takes both parents and sometimes two parents and their child often to set up this syndrome wherein the “aligned parent” prosecutes the campaign to alienate, however, the “alienated” parent contributes to this process with their own character or behaviors and additionally the alienated child can form a central role in the destructive pattern:

“Aligned Parent” Views and Behaviors:

1. The aligned parents harbors a deep distrust and fear of the other parent;
2. The aligned parent is absolutely convinced that the other parent is irrelevant and/or evil;
3. A aligned parent views the alienated parent’s rejected visits are seen as a form of harassment;
4. The aligned parent and the child tell stories about the rejected parent’s lack of care and lack of love;
5. The aligned parent encourages the child to point out the flaws of the rejected parent;
6. The aligned parent confirms for the child that the other parent is not worthy of the child’s attention; and
7. The aligned parent strongly supports the child’s right to make his or her own decision about visitation with the rejected parent.

Contributions of the “Rejected Parent” Include:

1. Passivity and withdrawal in the face of conflict;
2. Conter rejection of the alienated child;
3. Harsh and rigid parenting styles;
4. Self centeredness;
5. Critial and demanding traits; and
6. Diminished empathy for the aligned child.

Contributions of the “alienated child” include:

1. The child’s age and cognitive ability;
2. The child’s sense of abandonment by the alienated parent;
3. The child’s temperament; and
4. Lack if external support for the child.
Therefore a more complex picture emerges, not of one bad actor parent alone as the cause and reality of Parental Alienation Syndrome. Often, one parent and the child, or both parents or even, all three parties can be actively involved in PAS, and therefore legal practitioners and clients need to move slowly in evaluating claims of alienation.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is not anticipated to be included in the next version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, used by Psychologists and Psychiatrists to designate mental illness. Moreover, critics of PAS indicate that it oversimplifies the causes of alientation, can confuse the work of clinical workers and lacks adequate scientific data supporting its conclusions. However, the reader must be cautioned that the courts are wise to the negative impact that marital or custodial conflict exposure on the children. Yet the courts can be ‘slow’ to order more drastic measures at the expense of the parent child relationship.

Potential Outcomes at Court to Manage Parental Alienation

It is impossible to second guess a court or to make a determination as to the outcome of a given case that involves PAS and the request for a court to render an order to prevent or counter act the presences of PAS. When determining custody, possession schedules and ultimately how the Court will balance the needs of the child to have a relationship with their parent and the real dangers of allowing a parent to be unchecked in this form of abuse, mental health experts including Forensic Psychologists and Psychiatrists must assess the validity of charges of this form of abuse and tailor recommendations to the Court to counteract the ill effects. Ackerman writes that it can take two or three years of contempt and enforcement motions to stabilize an alienated child in the absence of an effective therapeutic plan that can be administered by an agreed or court appointed mental health professionals. Courts have employed some of the following conditions wherein there is credible evidence of Parental alienation:

1. Appointment of Guardian Ad Litem (Tex. Fam. Code 107.002) to conduct social study of child’s living circumstances;
2. Establishment of court ordered injunctions, such as the Children’s Bill of Rights, to prevent behavior that is harmful to children;
3. Appointment of Parenting Facilitator (Tex. Fam. Code 153.605) to study parenting styles and make a report to the court on the progress of the parents at parenting and clarifications, if any to the existing court orders, in the best interest of the child;
4. Appointment of Forensic Psychologist to study one or both parents and child for characterological conditions;
5. Imposition of interim sanctions, such as court ordered therapy;
6. Imposition of restricted visitations, such as court ordered supervised visitation; and
7. Imposition of reduce parental rights and duties.
Parental Alienation Syndrome is a significant and ongoing element of custody disputes involving children and high conflict parents. The intersection of evolving scholarly literature, therapeutic regimes and the realities of our family courts’ attempts to deal with this condition in the family law make it important for parents and their legal counsel to consult with psychiatric experts to determine if additional consideration for PAS is warranted in their case.

Recent Publications Regarding Parental Alienation Syndrome:

1) Ackerman, Marc J. (2006) “Clinician’s Guide to Child Custody Evaluations 3rd ed.”John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
2) Gardner, R.A. (1998) “Recommendations or Dealing with parents who induce a parental alienation syndrome in their children.” Journal of Divorce and Remarriage.
3) Johnson, Janet et al, (2006) The Psychological Functioning of Alienated Children in Custody Disputing Families: An Exploratory Study. American Journal of Forensic Psychology.
4) Wallerstein, J.S., et al (2000) “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 year Landmark Study.” Hyperion Press.


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Original photo contributed by Charles Verdict, (2010)