Parental alienation

EDITOR’S NOTE: Names and some descriptive details have been changed to protect the privacy of the family.

This may be the eighth Christmas that Beth does not share with her son Will. She missed the first time he shaved. His first day of high school. The day he tested for his drivers’ license.

Will was 12 and his brother Jake was 15 when their parents’ marriage unraveled. Their father, Rex, became visibly angry and upset once Beth finalized her plans to leave the marriage. Beth tried to reason with him, but he was far too upset. Rex posted large, desperate notes all over the house—notes even the kids would see. Do not leave this house. You can’t do this.

Beth adored her children. She was involved in their lives, helping with homework and trying in every way to be a “hands on” mom. But the marriage was over. Beth rented a small house in the same neighborhood, hoping that Will and Jake could go back and forth from her home to their father’s. She wanted to work out the best possible plan to help the kids to adjust to the divorce. Unfortunately, she says, “It never, ever got there.”

The first evening he was to spend at Beth’s, Will stayed for only a few hours. He snuck away and walked the few blocks back to Rex’s house without a goodbye.

Ultimately, Will never spent a single night in his mom’s house. Despite a joint custody decree once the divorce was final, Will continued to live exclusively with his dad. Beth missed him terribly. She’d show up at Rex’s house, asking to see her son. But Will refused to talk to her and Rex supported him. “There were road blocks all the way. I’d talk to Rex about it and he’d say, ‘Oh, well. Sorry. He doesn’t want to go with you.’ I’m assuming he told Will he didn’t have to go.” Friends and family members were stunned that Will would refuse to have anything to do with his mom. Beth sent cards and letters, eventually questioning whether Will even saw them.

Jake did his best to live at both houses, in accordance with the custodial agreement. But life with Rex lacked structure, supervision and accountability. From a teen perspective, says Jake, there were great advantages to that lifestyle—at first. “I made decisions based on that freedom that I couldn’t have made at my mom’s house,” he says, a flicker of regret in his voice. Rex showered the boys with gifts: football equipment, electric guitars, video games, bicycles. But Jake started to feel that Rex was using him to pass information “not meant for my ears” on to Beth. He felt manipulated. He and his dad began to argue. Rex would tell Jake to get out. He would go. Will would be showered with more gifts. Rex would apologize; Jake would move back.

Finally, Jake moved out for good, deciding to stay permanently with Beth. He hasn’t seen or spoken to his father in years. Rex did not attend Jake’s high school graduation. Jake isn’t sure if his dad knows what he majored in at college.

It was through counseling that Beth was able to put a name on what happened to her family: Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). First described in the mid-’80s, PAS refers to a child’s strident rejection of a parent stemming from brainwashing or programming by the other parent.

The term entered the national divorce lexicon at a time when the traditional formula for divvying up marital blood and treasure was unraveling. Men began to ask for shared custody of their children; women began demanding their share of the money. (Arizona is one of only nine community-property states, in which property acquired during a marriage is jointly owned and divided equally.)

Some therapists claimed that PAS was a way to justify the manipulation of children by a bitter mother who wished to punish a custody-seeking father. The term was not well received by women’s rights groups, either. They recoiled at the notion of PAS, considering the term to be just another tactic drummed up by divorce lawyers to favor the father in custody battles.

Whether or not PAS actually qualifies as a syndrome remains controversial—it isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the bible of the American Psychiatric Association. But awareness of parental alienation among mental health experts, lawyers, and judges is certainly on the upswing. Last spring, the now infamous “rude, thoughtless little pig” voicemail message left by actor Alec Baldwin for his preteen daughter by ex-wife Kim Basinger was widely covered by the media. Leaked by an unknown source, the recording was heard by millions.

Parental alienation occurs when one parent denigrates the other parent to a child and, in the process, alienates the positive feelings the child may have for that parent, says Phoenix psychotherapist Howard J. Markson, M.S.W., LCSW. The child begins to take on the negative feelings of the parent who initiates the alienation—sort of like “Stockholm syndrome,” when hostage or kidnap victims begin to identify with and show loyalty to their captors. Some people can’t deal with a break-up in a psychologically healthy way—so they deal with it through their kids, says Markson. “That’s where this toxic kind of poisoning starts to enter the picture.”

Vengeance toward the parent who is asking for the divorce may be a motivator, says Paradise Valley counselor Marlene Joy, Ph.D. A spouse might feel wronged by the divorce process itself because of requirements to pay child support or spousal maintenance. A parent may actually feel that the other is a bad parent, but in most cases that’s not true, says Joy, who works in private practice as a custody evaluator. It’s just that they view their former partner through a prism of hatred. They are driven to do whatever it takes to discredit them. Using the children as pawns, says Joy, is a way to do that.

But can one parent actually brainwash a child to scorn the other parent? How can family members, friends, judges or mental health professionals recognize whether a targeted parent is truly a victim of alienation or is, in reality, a surreptitious abuser from whom the child should be protected?

Scottsdale forensic psychologist John Moran, Ph.D., like Joy, evaluates parent-child relationships to resolve custody disputes. He says that whether or not a child will align with one parent or the other can be a function of age, interest, circumstances of the break-up, even which religion is practiced. Children caught in an ongoing conflict between their parents can tire from not knowing what to believe. If they have not yet reached the age of abstract thinking, it can be easy to see the issues in black and white.

“Thirteen to 17 percent of the time, a kid will reject a parent—that’s a tragedy,” says Moran. “What do we do about it? Alienation…should be considered child abuse. To me, harming a kid that way is as bad as harming a kid by spanking him and leaving a bruise. Probably worse.”

In every divorce, some alienating behavior occurs, says Moran. “For example, the parents are separated, the mom calls to talk to the kids, and dad says, ‘Do you want to talk to your mom?’ I see that all the time. It strikes me as really inappropriate. It’s kind of like if my mother calls me—is my wife going to say, ‘Do you want to talk to your mom?’ No! She’d say, ‘It’s your mother. Get on the phone!’”

Moran says it can be very difficult for one parent to feel supportive of the other parent because of how wounded they both feel. Yet, he says, “a parent continues to have responsibility to support the children’s relationship with the other parent. They have to be taking pro-active steps to ensure that that happens.”

There’s no question that children who are alienated from a parent become psychologically and emotionally fragile, says Annette Burns, a Phoenix attorney who specializes in family law. Most likely, they are being set up for ongoing trouble with relationships for the rest of their lives.

As an attorney, she’s seen both sides. If she finds herself representing a targeted parent, she suggests immediate counseling and a custody study performed by a professional custody evaluator. Representing someone she thinks might be trying to alienate a child, she says, calls for a practical approach. She says she advises the client that alienating behavior will ultimately “backfire in the court…and later, when your child figures out what you did.”

Resolving custody issues isn’t cheap. Professional custody evaluations can start at around $4,500, says Burns, and that’s on top of attorney’s fees. How do people afford that?

“They borrow it from family, they go to credit cards, the college funds get used up…that may be one of the saddest parts,” says Burns.

The Superior Court does offer conciliation counseling at no cost to those who are unable to pay a private custody evaluator. But a private custody evaluation, which includes psychological testing, is likely to have greater forensic assessment than would occur in the compilation process through the court’s conciliation services.

Custody evaluations take months. Conciliation counseling is over in a matter of hours. That was not enough time, says Beth, to untangle the sticky web that Rex was able to weave. He told the counselor assigned to their case “everything she wanted to hear,” she says. Faced with the estrangement from Will, it was impossible for her to keep frazzled emotions in check.

“When I would try to say something, he made me look like I was hysterical. He’d say, ‘Oh, really. That’s not the way it is. Will just doesn’t want to see you. He doesn’t feel safe with you.’ And so the report came back, and it said ‘The father is willing to work on this, and try to get Will to do it, but the son doesn’t want to go.’ Anytime I would say anything, it appeared that I was just making stuff up. He was able to convince her that everything was fine.”

This may be the eighth Christmas that Beth does not share with her son, Will. Or maybe it will be the first Christmas that they embrace, exchange a gift, share a meal. In the last year, they’ve started to talk by phone. Short conversations, but a connection nonetheless. Last summer, she was able to hug the boy who has now grown in to a man. She dreams that they can salvage at least some of the relationship stolen years ago.

Launched on a new career, Jake is doing well. Still, he’s pondering whether or not to try to reestablish contact with Rex. Should he risk opening up old wounds? It’s a tough call.

Is it ever possible for a family to heal after years of parental alienation? Moran says he’s hopeful, especially in light of new studies and programs that focus on forgiveness. Participants first work to acknowledge their anger, and then attempt to move to a place of compassion—all while staying strong, acknowledging emotional boundaries and trying to look at what on earth would lead anyone to participate in such destructive behavior. The hope, Moran says, is that someday they might think of what happened with these words in mind: “I can have compassion for whatever darknesses are around your heart and around your mind that lead you to behave that way.

The vocabulary

Parenting/custody evaluation

A Parenting Evaluation (PE), also called a Custody Evaluation, is a formal investigation that attempts to assess the level of each parent’s respective parenting skills and to determine which parent may be best suited to care for a child or children. A PE is usually done at the request of one of the divorcing parties, but may be court-ordered. It involves personal interviews with the parents by trained evaluators and psychological testing of the parents. It also allows interviews with “collateral contacts”—a daycare provider, family friends, employers, marriage counselors, etc. Costs are borne by the parties (jointly or individually). The range of expense could be as little as $1,500 to more than $10,000, depending on the complexity of the issues presented.

Conciliation counseling

Offered by the Superior Court under the authority of Arizona law (ARS 25-381) for married parties who are considering or who are in the process of divorce. The focus of this brief counseling is to assist parties in making an informed and thoughtful decision regarding their marital relationship. Upon completion of the counseling, the parties may be referred to community-based counseling services for further assistance.

Parenting conference

During the process of conciliation counseling, the Conciliation Services Officer completes what may be considered a compilation report that details each party’s position [regarding children]. He or she also may consider collateral information (police reports, CPS reports, etc) and the children may be interviewed. Conciliation Services then submits recommendations to the court regarding legal custody, parenting time or the use of other services (drug testing, counseling, etc). The court is not bound to accept the recommendations, although they are given appropriate weight under the circumstances.

Parenting coordinator

A Parenting Coordinator (PC) is appointed in some but not all custody cases, after a custody and parenting time order is entered. The PC’s role is to help the parties implement and interpret their parenting plan, and to help with enforcement when necessary. The PC does not enter or modify custody orders but can make recommendations to the judge about certain aspects of the custody order, if the parties can’t agree. PCs are either mental health professionals or attorneys and are almost always in private practice, which means they don’t work for the court system and are paid by the parties. For custody cases where the parties have made repeated trips back to court to have their custody plan interpreted (“high conflict” cases), having and paying a PC may be more economical for the parties than paying their lawyers for repeated court visits.

Sources: Superior Court Judge Bruce Cohen, attorney Annette Burns and