Parental Alienation

During and after a divorce becoming the target of parental alienation can create huge fear and depression in the case of the parent being alienated.  There is potential for complete loss of the relationship with the child, or, on the other hand, what if the allegations by the child, typically abuse, are true?

Let’s discuss what parental alienation is and what it isn’t by first trying to define what it is.  There is wide-spread debate about whether the problem even exists.  For example, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders used by the American Psychological Association doesn’t recognize Parental Alienation as a syndrome.  Some argue that while the DSM doesn’t specifically call for the syndrome, the elements of the problem are clearly defined in the manual.

The DSM does use a category of Parent-Child Relational Problem, and Child Affected by Parental Relationship Distress to be used when “the focus of clinical attention is the negative effects of parental relationship discord (e.g. high levels of conflict, distress, or disparagement) on a child in the family, including effects on the child’s mental or other medical disorders (DSM P. 716).

Under the category of Parent-Child Relational Problem, the DSM states, “Cognitive problems may include negative attributions of the other’s intentions, hostility toward or scapegoating of the other, and unwarranted feelings of estrangement. Affective problems may include feelings of sadness, apathy, or anger about the other individual in the relationship.” (DSM P. 715)

Some, however, argue that no such syndrome exists, stating that while divorce is often stressful and challenging for all involved, reducing those problems to a syndrome of mental health is not warranted.

When there are allegations of abuse, the question becomes even more difficult for courts to parse.  The most typical is where the parent, many times a father, is accused of abuse, but is also arguing parental alienation.  Is a court required to place a child with a parent because of an allegation of alienation in such circumstances?

Unfortunately, the response from courts is across the board, there is almost no consistent approach to claims of parental alienation.  The courts responses generally fall into these categories:  Rejecting the Admissibility of Parental Alienation, Avoid the question on procedural grounds or on factual grounds, Treating the syndrome unfavorably, treating the syndrome favorably, accepting the syndrome but not ruling on admissibility.

While some courts will not admit into evidence the syndrome, many will recognize certain behavior however they may be labeled.  If these facts exist in a divorce case, parties on both sides would be wise to neither assume the evidence will be admitted or assume the court will dismiss the syndrome or associated behavior.