Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: A Research Review

This paper provides a historical and research overview of Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation, identifies strategic issues for advocates working with victims, and offers guidelines to improve courts’ treatment of these issues.

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Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: A Research Review by Joan S. Meier (September 2013)

In Brief:

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) and Parental Alienation (PA) are commonly raised to combat a mother’s allegations that a father is abusive and that his access to the children should be restricted. While PAS and PA are sometimes used interchangeably, they have separate origins, and are pointedly distinguished by their originators. They are also not equally subject to legal challenge.

PAS was invented by Richard Gardner in the 1980’s to explain what he considered to be an epidemic of child sexual abuse allegations in custody litigation. Gardner claimed, with no empirical basis, that the vast majority of such allegations are false, but were fabricated by vengeful or pathological mothers. Credible and extensive empirical research has demonstrated that the assumptions underpinning PAS, including that child sexual abuse allegations are rampant, and generally false, are themselves entirely false. Over time, the strange assumptions underlying Gardner’s theory have been critiqued and the validity of a scientific “syndrome” has been roundly rejected by numerous legal and psychological professional and expert bodies and researchers. Gardner’s apologist attitude toward pedophilia has contributed to the discrediting of PAS. While this has not ended reliance on PAS within courts and policymakers, it has reduced its use. To date, the only published opinions addressing the admissibility of PAS have ruled against it.

However, Parental Alienation has risen from the ashes of PAS. PA (or “child alienation”) has been defined by leading well-regarded researchers, many of whom have rejected the validity of PAS, as addressing cases where a child expresses “unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs” (including fear) about a parent “that are significantly disproportionate to that child’s actual experience with that parent.” The key difference between this definition and the way PAS has been understood is that PA recognizes the different factors that can cause a child to be alienated from a parent. These researchers have also found that the disliked parent often contributes to a child’s alienation.

In theory, this broader and more balanced approach to children’s estrangement from a parent should be less likely to undermine abuse allegations and protective parents’ attempts to keep their children safe. In practice, however, PA has been used in court in largely identical fashion to PAS: to penalize mothers who allege that the father is unsafe for the children, and to label them “alienators.” While the research demonstrates no correlation between alienating conduct and being a victim of battering, these writers and many evaluators still often treat battered mothers as alienators when they allege that a father is unsafe.

Helpful New Research

Recent federally funded research has demonstrated that custody evaluators tend to fall into two categories: those who know about domestic violence and consider it important in custody litigation, and those who do not. This research confirms that those who do not have an in-depth understanding of domestic violence also tend to label abuse allegations “alienation” and rarely identify abuse as a serious concern. Sadly, alienation labeling has also entered child welfare agency practices, who frequently discount and sometimes even turn against mothers who report child abuse by a father, particularly in context of custody or visitation litigation. Consistent with these findings, preliminary results of very new research into “turned-around” cases (i.e., those in which a first court fails to believe abuse and protect a child, and a second court recognizes abuse and protects the child) is demonstrating that alienation labeling plays a substantial role in courts’ refusals to believe abuse and protect children.

For all these reasons, once the alienation label is applied either in a court or child welfare proceeding , it is extremely difficult to achieve safety for at-risk children and the risk of mothers losing custody increases.

An Abuse-Sensitive Approach to Parental Alienation

The full paper lays out a seven-step approach to addressing PA allegations in a case where abuse is also alleged. The core premise is that abuse must be fully adjudicated or evaluated before alienation theory may be considered. If followed faithfully, this approach would exclude PA labeling from all valid abuse cases, except insofar as alienation is a part of a batterer’s abusive pattern.

Strategic Considerations

It is critically important for litigants to make an explicit record challenging the scientific validity of PAS as a theory, and of PA where it is applied to deny abuse allegations. This will normally require an expert witness with background in domestic violence, child abuse, and parental alienation theory. While such testimony may not succeed at trial, it may help make a record that could support a reversal on appeal. And while such experts can be costly, occasionally a pro bono expert can be found with the help of national organizations with this expertise.

A second strategy consideration concerns the fact that many batterers are themselves alienators of the children from their mother. It is difficult for domestic violence advocates, lawyers, and litigants to adopt this concept even where it might help their case, given that the label is used to deny abuse most of the time. However, it is to be hoped that courts will take alienation at least as seriously when an abuser commits it, as when a mother alleging abuse is viewed as an alienator. Individual litigants must come to terms with their own comfort level on this issue. However, an alternative term, “domestic violence by proxy” may be useful.

Distribution Rights

This Applied Research paper and In Brief may be reprinted in its entirety or excerpted with proper acknowledgement to the author(s) and VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, but may not be altered or sold for profit.