Parental Alienation Syndrome: An Overview In Child Custody Litigation

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS)?

A definition of alienation is a child who expresses, freely and persistently, unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs (such as anger, hatred, rejection and/or fear) toward a parent that are significantly disproportionate to the child's actual experience with that parent. This can happen when two parents are divorcing, or when the parents are fighting over custody. Parents may try to alienate the children for various motives, including revenge, power, fear, jealousy, or due to mental disability. Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) has three main elements: (1) rejection or denigration of a parent that reaches the level of a campaign; (2) the rejection is irrational (not a reasonable response to the alienated parent's behavior); and (3) it is a partial result of the non-alienated parent's influence. This means that alienation is not just a child having a strong rejection of a parent, or even a child having an irrational disdain for the parent. In order to be Parental Alienation Syndrome all three elements must be met.

The Louisiana Court of Appeals has utilized Richard Gardner's theory and listed eight symptoms of child alienation:

  • Denigration of the targeted parent completely, especially in the presence of the alienating parent;

  • Weak and irrational rationalization for the denigration;

  • Lack of ambivalence in making denigrating statements;

  • The "Independent Thinker" phenomenon: The child proudly professes that his or her rejection of the targeted parent is their own doing;

  • Reflective support of the alienating parent;

  • Absence of guilty or remorse over the exploitation of the targeted parent;

  • Presence of borrowed or rehearsed scenarios; and

  • Animosity toward the extended family of the alienated parent.

Other factors of the alienated child include showing disregard for the client and the client's feelings; they use adult language, mimic, demean and disrespect the client; they dislike spending time with the client; and they are over protective of the other parent, believing them to be perfect. The court also established typical characteristics of an alienating parent with the following factors:

  • Allows and insists that child make decisions about contact;

  • Refuses to hear positive comments about rejected parent, and quickly discounts good times as trivial and unimportant;

  • No encouragement of calls to other parents in between visits; rationalizes that child does not ask;

  • Sets few limits or is rigid about routines, rules and expectations;

  • Refuses to speak directly to the other parent; refuses to be in the same room or close proximity; does not let target parent come to door and pick up child;

  • Body language and nonverbal communication reveals disinterest, disdain and disapproval;

  • Rejected parent discouraged or refused permission to attend school events and activities;

  • Does not believe that child has any need for relationship with other parent;

  • Portrays other parent as dangerous, may inconsistently act fearful of other parent in front of child;

  • Exaggerates negative attributes of other parent and omits anything positive;

  • Delusional false statements repeated to child; distorts history and other parent's participation in the child's life; claims other parent has totally changed since separation;

  • Does not correct child's rude, defiant and/or omnipotent behavior directed toward the other parent, but would never permit the child to do this with others;

  • False or fabricated allegations of sexual, physical, and/or emotional abuse;

  • Denigrates and exaggerates flaws of rejected parent to child;

  • Over-involves child in adult matters and litigation; and

  • Extreme lack of courtesy to rejected parent.

Some other signs of an alienating parent include a parent who forces the child to choose between parents; makes the child take sides; bribes the child with gifts; attempts to make a child feel guilty; and attempt to destroy the loving relationship the other parent has with the child.

In cases with potential child alienation, it is important for the lawyer to investigate. The preferred parent could be attempting to influence the opinion of the child, so an evaluation that determines the child's emotional state, whether loyalty conflicts exist, whether the child has a strong desire to please one parent, or whether the child has a lot of anger toward one parent will help guide a determination of PAS.

It is up to the lawyer to broach the possibility of parental coercion, either through showing "parent bashing" or "brainwashing."

Determining Whether PAS is Likely Occurring

Assessing children in high-conflict custody cases is important to determine whether the child is non-alienated or likely alienated if they align with one parent and show signs of visitation refusal or certain beliefs about the other parent that are likely distorted. Some children may be realistically estranged rather than actually alienated.

Alienated children in these high-conflict custody cases have the following symptoms:

  • Lack of cohesive sense of self-care;

  • Enmeshment (when the alienating parent's emotion's escalate, the child's do as well);

  • Adoption of the preferred parent's thoughts and feelings;

  • Poor reality testing;

  • Illogical cognitive operations;

  • Simplistic and rigid information processing;

  • Anger and obsessive hatred of the rejected parent;

  • Lack of guilt;

  • Distraught behavior; and

  • Idealization of self and the preferred parental

Thus, in order to test for these features, psychological testing can be used on the child. This will distinguish whether the child is acting alienated because of actual experiences with the non-preferred parent, or because of the preferred parent's actions. Some testing methods may include projective drawings or an Apperception Test, but these tests do not have clear guidelines and may not be admissible in a forensic setting.

Another way to establish whether one parent is alienating a child is to keep track of the degree to which a child will report thoughts and experiences that are not from the child's direct experience. If the child tries to bring up child support payments, for example, it indicates boundary issues between the parent and child.

Showing the issue of idealization of self and the preferred parent can be done through tests such as the Personality Inventory for Youth. Additionally, keeping a record of times the preferred parent refused to allow the non-preferred parent to speak to the child, pick up the child, or attend school events for the child will help to show a pattern of alienation.

In litigating a case for a parent who has been alienated from their child by the other parent, getting the case to court is extremely important. Toxic parenting spreads quickly, much more quickly than it normally takes a case to make it through the court process. During this time, encourage clients to do their best to maintain some form of contact with their children, despite the anger or scorn the child my display toward the parent. The longer a child is kept away from a parent, the harder it will be to overcome the distance later on.

It is also important to ensure that the non-preferred parent does not begin to act inappropriately after the alienation has started because that poor behavior could be used to classify the child's behavior as a rational reaction to the non-preferred parent.

Additionally, it is imperative to secure a detailed order for parent-child contact that has penalties for non-compliance instilled in them. If the order is violated, swiftly move for the order approved sanctions. Counsel can ask on a pendente lite basis to order consistent contact with between the non-preferred parent and the child. Some of the most common violations that a court will likely deem are against the best interest of the child include refusing to respect visitation rights; taking the child without the other parent's knowledge; and badmouthing the other parent.

If there are allegations of undue influence by the parent during the other parent's parenting time, then a parent can ask the court for a "no contact" during the non-preferred parent's designated time, again with prescribed sanctions for non-compliance. Because cases involving parental alienation are not routine or uniform, finding a custody evaluation or therapist familiar with parental alienation can be a big help in establishing parental alienation. Further, hiring a mental health expert early on will establish symptoms and dangers of parental alienation to the court. This expert, however, should not make custody suggestions or evaluate the family.

The most important part of proving parental alienation is establishing that the child's rejection is unjustified. Counsel should examine the children's complaints about the non-preferred parent to determine whether they are exaggerated or disproportionate to the degree of the children's animosity or fear, and whether the non-preferred parent's behavior would be harmful to the children if the parents were still together. Finding witnesses that can note a change in the child's behavior and attitudes, including relatives, friends, teachers, coaches, or even through videotapes and cards, can help establish a new and unjust disdain for the non-preferred parent.

Custody evaluations are often the best way to prove parental alienation to a judge. Utilizing a psychologist will be a good place to start in order to get enough information to render an opinion about parental alienation. Examining medical and school records, as well as interviewing the children, the parties and other individuals with relevant information are often best practices. While many individuals believe that a judge can find parental alienation without an expert and a custody evaluation, it is not usually the case.

Parental Alienation versus Realistic Estrangement

Custody evaluations can also be used to help determine whether there is parental alienation or realistic estrangement. The difference between an estranged child and an alienated child is that an estranged child has grown apart from the parent for reasons that are reasonable and realistic. In contrast, an alienated child is the victim of one parent's efforts, either conscious or unintentional, to destroy the child's relationship with the other parent. Many child custody cases can turn on this issue as parents make competing allegations about why the children might be aligned more with one parent versus the other by the court. The proper method is to provide several names and suggest that there are others who the parent may find acceptable as well. This allows the parent to make a decision that may importantly effect their life and not feel they are being exploited.

Ultimately, the biggest concern is a child feeling loved. The issue of what arrangement in child parent custodial care can best provide a child with feeling love is essential. This crucial factor needs to be carefully assessed in every custody case.

Dealing with False Allegations

Frequently, when a parent goes far enough to attempt to alienate a parent from their child, that parent will also have no problem leveling abuse claims at the other parent. When involved in a custody dispute, a parent may present these false allegations at another parent in an attempt to even the playing field in getting custody of children, or as an attempt to gain favor over the other parent. These abuse allegations can include sexual offenses, physical and emotional abuse, criminal offenses, drug abuse, domestic violence and negligence. Defeating these claims when false can be very time consuming and costly, including both investigation and litigation. All too often, the parent the claims are alleged against is unable to afford the legal and expert fees necessary to prove that no abuse occurred. When a parent is accused of abuse, it will be easy for that parent to tell anyone that will listen that he or she is not an abuser, and that the allegations are clearly false. However, once accused, it can be almost impossible for simple words to convince someone from Child Protective Services, a prosecutor, or police officer that the allegations are false. For this reason, it is important to ensure that the client does not speak to any police, prosecutor, or anyone else involved in the case without an attorney present. Since declarations of innocence won't convince anyone, it is better to ensure they cannot say anything damaging either. While a client may think that utilizing a lawyer shows guilt, a good lawyer is imperative in refuting false allegations. Some steps to take after an accusation has been made include:

  • Always remain steadfast in your client's innocence;

  • Attempt to regain custody or visitation immediately, even if said visitation will be under constant third party supervision;

  • Have your client log all events in a calendar and diary, including where the client was and with whom, in order to refute any more claims of present abuse;

  • Do not allow the client to attempt to poison the child against the other parent, even though the other parent has made terrible accusations about the client;

  • Allow the client to talk to the child regarding the issue without placing blame;

  • Encourage the client to remind the child of the good times the parent has had with the child and share family stories; and

  • Encourage the client to continue showing their love and constancy to the child, even if the child does not want to accept it.

When the abuse claims are child abuse claims another difficulty will be that children can easily be led. A child's testimony, and even memory, can be contaminated. Because of children's impressionability, a lawyer should demand an early discovery of all videotapes, audiotapes, and transcripts of interviews with the accuser. That way, a lawyer can determine if the child is pulling an accusation directly from the other parent. Also, using experts when dealing with a child accuser will be necessary. An expert can find indications that coercion has taken place. These experts will be able to explain the suggestibility of children and possibility of memory distortion.

It is possible to beat a false abuse claim. For instance, the Supreme Court of Maine asserted in Handrahan v. Malenko that the father did not abuse the child, even with abuse claims. Here, a forensic evaluation team fit this case into the "moderate evidence of sexual assault" category and used evidence such as the consistency and specificity of the child's statements about the abuse. The court noted that the investigators did not, however, account for factors weakening the likelihood of abuse, like the age of the child, his inability to recall surrounding details, the fact that this assertion was made in the middle of a custody dispute, and that he had been questioned previously about abuse. In addition, the court notes that an expert witness is only as reliable and trusted as the fact finder allows them to be in each case. The court ultimately determined it could not rely on the child's claims due to the child's inability to distinguish between a truth and a lie during evaluation.

Involving Experts

In custody disputes, parties will hire experts in order to testify and strengthen their case. These experts may testify as to custody evaluations, psychological evaluations of either the parents or child, and substance abuse evaluations. They may bring in physicians or other medical professionals. An expert witness must be informed of his or her duties in a conference where both parties are given the opportunity to participate. While preparing for trial, an expert hired by one party will not have a right to meet with the opposing party, or possibly not even the child, without court approval.

Expert opinions are admissible into court when specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand evidence or to determine the facts pertaining to an issue. The expert's qualification may come from knowledge, skill, experience, training or education. Once qualified, the witness will be able to express an opinion to the court in most states.

Many family law clients have a hard time embracing the fact that expert witnesses are necessary. Clients will often have a difficult time understanding why they cannot testify about their opinion on critical matters involved in the case. They feel they are the most qualified to discuss their own family, so will have a harder time allowing an expert to testify as to the family dynamics. Parties often will worry about the cost of an expert witness. It is imperative to have these experts in certain situations, like when alleging parental alienation, because the expert will be the best way to ensure that the client is put in the best possible position.

It is often very difficult to prove abuse in custody cases because most abuse occurs with no witnesses and a child may recant their statement or refuse to discuss the abuse. When abuse is an issue, the accused parent will explain away the injury or claim from the child, and the other's goal then becomes to disprove that explanation. In order to disprove that explanation, an expert witness will be used. In physical abuse cases, a physician, forensic pathologist, or hospital pediatrician would be best as finding any discrepancies between an explanation and the actual injury. In sexual abuse cases, therapists will likely be necessary to demonstrate sexual abuse occurred, as it can be harder to get physical proof of sexual abuse.

Social workers can also be extremely helpful as expert witnesses because they have education and training in family relationships and dynamics that will help the court determine the family dynamic and how the parent fits with the child based on the child's personality, developmental needs, and past experiences.

Mental health professionals can be utilized to consult attorneys in either of two capacities. In one, the professional will serve as an expert witness, and is not providing services in a confidential manner, and their work will be entirely discoverable at trial. The second type of mental health consultant is one that is not there to give testimony, but to help the attorney and client understand various aspects of the case and to help with the technical concepts involved. In this instance, the mental health professional's findings will be protected as attorney work product

Due to a notion of mental health professionals working as "hired guns" to say whatever the attorney needs to prove a point, judges often are skeptical to believe or rely on a mental health professional working with only one party. A mental health professional that is jointly retained, or court appointed, like a Guardian Ad Litem, will be met with much less distrust and given more deference by a judge. Also, judges across most states will make their decisions with the child's best interest in mind, so it is important to ask the expert questions that lead to the conclusion that one parent will be best for the child, rather than its best for the parent.

One of the best ways to prepare for examining another party's expert witness in a custody case is to have an expert brief the attorney on the substantive area of inquiry and point out what the opposing party should be asked about. When asking these questions to opposing counsel, very rarely is it appropriate for an attorney to challenge the expert in their field, but these detailed questions may help to impeach or rebuttal the validity of the expert's testimony later. In addition, when utilizing an expert witness, it is best to consult with him or her prior to conducting discovery. An expert witness will explain the best information to gain for the client and where it can be likely found.

In preparing an expert witness for direct examination, it is imperative to prepare the expert in all substantive issues and prepare them for how the questioning will work from each side. Explaining exactly what the attorney needs to prove for the client will allow the expert to know the main goal of the attorney and how each question can lead to that objective. In addition, it is best to acknowledge the negatives about the client as this makes an expert seem more credible and impartial, as well as lessens the blow that the negative impact would have if the opposing party announced it first. Asking the expert for his or her opinion, and then allowing plenty of room for elaboration will allow the expert to be most persuasive.

When it comes to cross-examining an expert witness, the most important thing is preparation. No lawyer wants to start asking questions that are more detrimental to a case than staying silent would have been. By being prepared, an attorney can meet the goal of getting more information that will help his or her client's own case. Another purpose of cross-examination is impeachment through one of the following areas: witness training and experience; limited database; theoretical rationale; choice of methods of treatment; bias; or actual dishonesty. In attempting to impeach an expert witness, one strategy is to start with the least threatening area that a witness may be more likely to concede, and then follow up with more severe avenues.

In some instances, judges may be more likely to trust lay testimony over expert testimony due to the length of time many lay witnesses will have been able to observe the child and parents. These help to establish the relationship between the parents and the child, and how well the child is cared for. Some common lay witnesses will include neighbors, friends, relatives, teachers, coaches, scout leaders, and babysitters. Teachers specifically will have substantial amount of information on abuse and neglect, so will be able to document the ongoing nature of the child's care. Teachers can be difficult to call as lay witnesses, however, because they may not want to be torn between the child's parents. Talking to these witnesses even if they do not testify will help to identify more information that can lead to other evidence and avenues for the client. These witnesses will not be allowed to speculate beyond what they have seen of the child, and are not given the same leeway in asserting opinions to the court.

PAS Controlled Case-Law

The following are cases in which child alienation was a factor in the court's decision:

  • Martin v. Martin, 61 A.D.3d 1297, 878 N.Y.S.2d 475 (3d Dep't 2009): New York case where the father's petition to modify a custody order was denied because in considering the child's testimony, it seemed inaccurate and unreliable, as if the child had memorized a list of complains and was under pressure to make sure the court heard the entire list.

  • Wolt v. Wolt, 2010 ND 26, 778 N.W.2d 786 (N.D. 2010): A North Dakota case where the court awarded custody to Mother, even though two of the three children strongly favored Father. Father had been abusive to Mother, involved the children in the divorce, undermined the mother's parenting, and told the children bad things about the mother. A party who willfully alienates a child could not be granted custody based on that alienation.

  • Begins v. Begins, 168 Vt. 298, 721 A.2d 469 (1998): A Vermont case where the court would not reward Father's continual poisoning of the children against Mother with a grant of custody.

  • Hanson v. Spolnik, 685 N.E.2d 71 (Ind. Ct. App. 1997): Father argued that Mother had engaged in a pattern of parental alienation with Child that was affecting Child's long-term emotional and psychological needs. A child psychologist determined that Mother's comments and allegations against Father were directed at alienating Child from Father and that Mother's behavior endangered Child's emotional and psychological development. The court agreed that Mother had engaged in a concerted effort to destroy Child's relationship with Father since the divorce. For this reason, the court awarded Father sole physical and legal custody of Child to Father. Also, Mother was denied visitation for a period of sixty days followed by only two hours of supervised visitation with Child every two weeks for three months.

  • Ellis v. Ellis, 952 So.2d 982 (Miss. Ct. App. 2006): Daughter was determined to suffer from Parental Alienation Syndrome and the Mother was deemed the major cause of that alienation. Experts found an excessive dependency of the Mother to the Child, and that Child suffered depression and a dip in social skills due to this. The court also found that the alienation went beyond just Father, but also to Father's family, including Child's grandparents, aunts and uncles. The court found that this issue did not only concern custody, but Child's overall emotional health and that Mother's actions were beyond the realm of reasonable behavior and contrary to the best interest of Child. Custody was altered in favor of Father due to the alienation by the Mother.

  • Hilkirk v. Johnson, 183 So.3d 731 (La. Ct. App. 2015): Here, the trial court found the level of parental alienation startling, even stating that it was appalled when the minor child sat next to the mental health expert to discuss the case and stated that she would only spend time with Father to prevent Mother from going to jail. The trial court ordered a custody change from Mother to Father and would not allow Mother to contact child for two months. The appeals court on hearing this case determined that while there was evidence of parental alienation, it was not enough to change custody. The appeals court focused heavily on the best interest of the child, and could not find in the record clear and convincing evidence that the advantages of the change in custody would substantially outweigh the harm likely to be caused to the child because of the change. For this reason, even though parental alienation existed in this case, it was not enough to establish that the best interest of the child would be met by being removed from the alienating parent.

  • C.J.L v. M.W.B., 879 So.2d 1169 (Ala. Civ. App. 2003): Trial court awarded Father sole physical custody of three children due to testimony by a mental health professional that found Mother was alienating children from Father, even if she was possibly doing so unintentionally. The appeals court would not rely on the term parental alienation syndrome, but stated that Mother had attempted to alienate the children from their father, and more specifically, that Mother had repeatedly demonstrated that she was unable to promote Father's role in the children's lives. Because Father would promote the children's relationship with Mother, but Mother would not promote their relationship with Father, Father's award of custody was affirmed.

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