The following was written by GlennSacks.com readers Victor Cohen, Betsy Barton and Peter Logan. Cohen and Logan are attorneys in California; Barton is an astrophysicist there. All are board members of Fathers & Families of California.
The publication of this op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor raises anew the issue of Parental Alienation Syndrome (Christian Science Monitor, 10/14/09). It was written by Kathleen Russell who heads a California organization that seeks to have evidence of PAS excluded from shild custody hearings.
Critics of PAS argue that it is simply a legal tactic employed by abusive parents. They call it “junk science” and assert that it should be dismissed in family court. Their argument centers on the fact that the American Psychological Association, at present, does not have an official position on PAS. But that argument is a sleight of hand, designed to draw attention away from the very real and damaging problem of parental alienation.
Parental alienation occurs when one parent influences a child in order to harm the loving bond between that child and the other parent. False accusations of abuse against the “target” parent may be part of this alienation. It is a very well-documented phenomenon, widely accepted in the mental health community. In its severest form, parental alienation is child abuse because it destroys the relationship the child has with the alienated parent.
Stories of children whose lives have been damaged by parental alienation are common. For example:
Loving father Ronald E. Smith joined his son Ariel to write the book “Cheated”, which tell the story of how Ariel’s mother lied to her children and “cheated” them out of a relationship with their father. Teenager Bill Sears, who recently appeared with his father on the “The Morning Show with Mike & Juliet,” has become a shared parenting activist after years of alienation by Bill’s mother.
Alienated daughter Michelle Martin (Psychology Today, June 2007) tells of how her mother destroyed Michelle’s relationship with her father. “She was so angry at him for walking out on her, felt so much shame and betrayal, that you couldn’t possibly have a relationship with him if you wanted one with her.” Michelle suffered, recounting, “I’d lost all those years with a wonderful man, as well as with the members of his family that I loved.”
Parental Alienation Syndrome is a technical term for the presence of parental alienation along with other specific symptoms noted for a diagnosis, which can only be made by an informed mental health practitioner. On its website, the APA states that it has not officially recognized Parental Alienation Syndrome. Critics of PAS misuse that statement to suggest that parental alienation does not exist. In doing so, they blur the important distinction between the well-documented phenomenon of parental alienation and the technical syndrome, PAS. It is only the issue of whether PAS is a syndrome — and not the issue of whether parental alienation exists — that is still debated within the APA.
A simple search through the available material at the APA web site reveals that parental alienation is taken very seriously by professional psychologists and is recognized as a key factor in custody decisions. The guidelines adopted by the APA for custody evaluation even list scholarly work about PAS as “pertinent literature.”
Critics assert that family court judges should dismiss claims of parental alienation. In practice, that would mean that a parent accused of child abuse in a custody dispute would be prevented from presenting evidence of alienation to rebut the charge. The ability to defend oneself with the truth is a fundamental basis of our legal system.
Undoubtedly, PAS has been abused as a legal strategy on occasion. In that, it is no different from any other theory of prosecution or defense. In the “he said,” “she said” wars in family court, false allegations of child abuse, false allegations of domestic violence, and false allegations of parental alienation all occur. Should allegations of child abuse be ruled inadmissible simply because of their potential for falsity? Surely not, and neither should allegations of alienation.
There is no serious debate about whether parents can use alienating tactics to influence their children: they can and they sometimes do. The only debate about PAS is technical in nature. The loving bonds between children and their parents must be protected from the harm caused by parental alienation. To do so, family courts must admit evidence of parental alienation and give serious consideration to it in deciding custody.