When Animosity Poisons Custody Deals

`Parental Alienation Syndrome': Is It Legitimate Or Junk Science?

The Hartford Courant/June 14, 2007
By Jesse Leavenworth

In the sad world of child-custody fights, parents sometimes charge former spouses with poisoning filial bonds already withered by long separation.

Actor Alec Baldwin said such a campaign of lies and restricted access by estranged wife Kim Basinger drove him recently to call his 11-year-old daughter "a rude, thoughtless little pig" in a telephone voice message. Baldwin later apologized to his daughter, Ireland, blaming "parental alienation" for the ill-considered rant.

But PAS has not been widely accepted by the professional mental health community. The American Psychological Association has "noted the lack of data" to support PAS but has no official position on the purported syndrome, according to the organization's website.

Connecticut's appellate courts "have not expressly recognized `parental alienation syndrome' as a basis for awarding or changing custody, although the concept of parental alienation (not the `syndrome') appears relatively frequently in reported family cases," Greenwich attorney Hilary Miller, whose firm handles divorce and custody cases, wrote in an e-mail.

"The `syndrome' (as opposed to recognition of alienating conduct) lacks general scientific recognition, which is an obstacle to expert testimony regarding it," Miller wrote.

The courts' paramount concern is supposed to be the best interest of the child, and a variety of factors go into a final decision on awarding custody. The issue of parental alienation most often arises, Miller wrote, as part of the "friendly parent" concept.

"The theory is that children fare better when they are both permitted and encouraged to maintain a close relationship with both parents," he wrote. "Thus, if one of the parents would clearly foster a relationship with the other parent, but the reverse might not be the case, this factor would militate in favor of an award of custody to the `friendly' parent. Courts very frequently consider this factor and appear to attach great weight to it.

"A variant on this theme is an evaluation of the parents' ability and willingness to cooperate with each other in raising their child," Miller continued. "Again, because it is generally understood as being in the child's interest to have the love and succor of two parents, the fact that one parent would seek to involve the other parent in child rearing, but not vice versa, would suggest that this factor favors the `cooperative' parent."

The term, used frequently in family courts throughout the nation, is controversial - particularly when the word "syndrome" is added. Those who dismiss "parental alienation syndrome," or PAS, say the label lends scientific credence to charges often clouded by retribution and bitterness on both sides. Even worse, say opponents of the term, some parents who charge former partners with PAS are trying to obscure their own records of child and spousal abuse.

"PAS is junk science at its worst," Paul Fink, former president of the American Psychiatric Association, wrote last year in a press release.

Fink, president of the Leadership Council on Child Abuse and Interpersonal Violence, was responding to news that an organization of family court judges and the American Bar Association had discredited parental alienation syndrome.

"Science tells us that the most likely reason that a child becomes estranged from a parent is that parent's own behavior," Fink was quoted as saying in the release.

Although the "syndrome" is not widely accepted, some parents' rights groups, lawyers and mental health experts say parental alienation is a fact in certain child-custody cases. Alienation can be moderate to severe and include restricting visits from the non-custodial parent; not delivering gifts, birthday cards and messages from the non-custodial parent; withholding affection if the child says anything positive about the target parent; and repeating destructive lies about the target parent.

"Sadly, children are responsive to the custodial parent who has access to them," Stephen J. Ceci, professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University, wrote in an e-mail. "If this individual launches a campaign against the other parent, many (certainly not all - it depends on the dynamics and other factors) children will be susceptible."

"By this," Ceci wrote, "I mean they will not only parrot the custodial parent's vindictive statements, but if the campaign persists long enough, some children will come to internalize the false statements and believe them."Ceci also wrote that he doesn't buy parental alienation as a "syndrome," a term coined in 1985 by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner.

Gardner defined PAS as a "disorder that arises primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming [brainwashing] parent's indoctrinations and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the target parent."

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