Written on October 5, 2006 by Randy Flood
Newsweek recently published (September 25, 2006) an article titled “Fighting over the Kids”. This was an article describing the phenomenon of battered women loosing custody of their children due to batterers using the parental alienation defense. Domestic Violence advocates and some Family Court Councils purport that parental alienation is “junk science” and is a “cancer in the family courts”.Parental Alienation allegedly occurs when children reject or are systematically alienated from a parent. The unique aspect of the alienation is that it isn’t created by the experiential relationship with the alienated parent, however by the alienating parent or the dynamics of a high-conflict divorce process. In other words, the children may reject the alienated parent while remaining attached and loyal to the alienating parent out of fear, love, or confusion. The children experience, and as a result, develop an ideology that it isn’t safe for them to love both parents. They must denigrate and reject one, while idealizing and supporting the other. In the Newsweek article, they cited a case in which a mother, Genia, lost custody of her children and was barred from contacting them. Is that not a case of Parental Alienation as it is defined? Reportedly, the children are alienated from their mother not due to their experiential relationship with mother, but because of the father’s campaign to alienate her from the children. His motivation? Perhaps it is an extension of his control and abuse, taking away her “prize possession”, the children. Imagine how that would make him feel powerful or perhaps vindicated; “see, you shouldn’t have divorced me”. Despite the criticism regarding the origins and applications of parental alienation, it is a well documented phenomenon in divorce cases. Peer reviewed journals such as the Family Court Review have published several articles regarding parental alienation and its intersection with domestic violence. Those who do the work in the trenches and sit on the benches know very well the blank stare of the child who refuses to go to mom or dad’s house, despite no sound evidence of poor parenting. In the same vein, those of us who work with mental illness and read professional journals about this problem know very well about individuals who are psychotic that display poor judgment and aggressive behavior without any conscious intent to harm anyone, yet do. We also get angry at criminals who use the insanity defense in an attempt to absolve themselves from criminal behavior. Do we denounce mental illness in an effort to hold criminals accountable, and protect the victims of crime? No, we evaluate each and every case to determine the truth in that particular case.I am dismayed by the current efforts of domestic violence advocates to denounce parental alienation in an effort to take away a batterer’s arsenal. Although it is a noble cause, it isn’t professional, it isn’t judicious, and it isn’t ultimately advocating for the best interests of all children. It is advocating for a discipline, an ideology, and it is, in effect, trying to simplify a very complicated issue facing Family Courts. It is black and white, litigious thinking, not allowing for depth, dynamics, and nuances. Those of us who work with batterers understand very well that they are masters of obfuscation. They will bend, twist, and shade facts to avoid accountability and shift blame. Accordingly, Parental Alienation becomes a high powered weapon for them in courts. Some of us who work in domestic violence get scared and angry about this and reflexively seek to remove “the weapon” from society. It is understandable. When your daughter gets shot and killed by a criminal with an unregistered gun, you may wish to rid society of guns to feel safer. A more judicious and less emotionally reflexive response is to work on gun laws that develop polices of getting guns out of the hands of criminals and only into the hands of responsible citizens.This is what I advocate to the Family Courts. I’ve done hundreds of custody evaluations as well as worked with hundreds of batterers. I’ve seen batterers obsessively pursue control over their partner by alienating the children from their ex-wife. I’ve also seen angry, vindictive mothers who act out their abandonment rage systematically by alienating their children from a father with no history of poor parenting. And, I’ve seen cases that are dynamic. One parent has a history of problems such as substance abuse, poor parenting, or abusive behavior toward their partner. This parent experiences a “wake up call” from the divorce and begins a legitimate path to recovery. In other words, they begin changing. Nonetheless, the other parent is understandably traumatized from the past and remains wounded, fearful, and untrusting. This wounded parent begins acting this out with parental alienation tactics. As such, the level of fear and attendant requests for restriction and limitations of parenting time emanates more from a wounded parent with unresolved trauma than current realities. When this happens, the courts needs to afford the traumatized parent treatment not collude with their protracted trauma response by restricting the other parent’s parenting time. At the same time, the courts need to remain vigilant in holding the “recovering parent” accountable.The real cancer in Family Courts is unwavering advocacy of a rigid ideology interfacing with a litigious process that promotes bi-polar thinking of winners and losers: Is it domestic violence or parental alienation? This cancer progresses to thinking, “if batterers use parental alienation effectively as a defense to win custody, then we should consider parental alienation junk science and eradicate its use in court”. This is fear based, ideologically based, and it will not forward the best interests of ALL children. We need to train professionals, including judges, on the intersection of domestic violence and parental alienation. Then we need to evaluate and process each family case by case. Will mistakes be made because we are human? Yes! Do some criminals pretending to be mentally ill get reduced sentences? Yes, but it happens less and less as forensic psychology becomes more advanced in evaluating the insanity plea. I propose that we continue to study, research, and evaluate parental alienation, rather than throw it out. The more we learn about how vindictive parents can effectively alienate children from a good and loving parent, the more we can protect parents like Genia and her two children from Parental Alienation by a batterer.