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Parental Alienation and Family Law Disputes

Parental alienation is shown using the text

Parental alienation is a term or theory that is commonly used during divorce or custody proceedings when children are resisting visiting or spending time with one of the parents. This concept was first introduced by Dr. Richard A. Gardner. He describes parental alienation syndrome as: “The parental alienation syndrome (PAS) is a childhood disorder that arises almost exclusively in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a good, loving 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.” Richard A. Gardner M.D., The Parental Alienation Syndrome: Past, Present, and Future, International Conference on the Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), October 18, 2002, http://richardagardner.com/ar22.

This theory, as well as Dr. Gardner’s research surrounding it, has been largely criticized and debunked due to his misogynistic comments and his tendency to use this theory solely against women. Generally, this theory was employed against primary caregivers, which, historically, were almost always the mother. Instead of listening to the children and deciding if there is validity to their worries, Dr. Gardner instead chose to claim that in the vast majority of cases there is no valid reason for the child not to want to see a certain parent. He goes even further and states, “the rage of the rejected woman is more important than paranoid projection, and a campaign of deprecation and a significant desire to wreak vengeance on the father by alienating the children from him is present.” Parental Alienation Syndrome: Fact or Fiction? The Problem with Its Use in Child Custody Cases, 11 U. Mass. L. Rev. 64, 73.

Dr. Gardner’s theory revolves almost entirely on the idea that women are inherently spiteful and revenge-seeking when it comes to divorce, and they are willing to harm their child because of this. However, it seems more likely that in most, while not all, of these cases, a child’s reluctance might not come from his or her mother, but simply may occur naturally because for most of their life they have spent more time with their mother as she was the primary caregiver. This may lead to feelings of unease surrounding being alone with the father without there being any outside influence from the mother.

The invocation of this theory of parental alienation syndrome also tends to prevent women from being believed when they make rightful accusations. Research that occurred after this theory became more well-known demonstrates that women were often disbelieved in their claims of family violence and child sexual abuse as these claims were typically viewed as the woman being “hostile” and were met with allegations of alienation. A study even showed that “where the father claimed parental alienation, courts were more than twice as likely to disbelieve any claims of abuse by mothers, and almost four times more likely to disbelieve allegations of child sexual abuse.” Meier, Joan S. and Dickson, Sean and O’Sullivan, Chris and Rosen, Leora and Hayes, Jeffrey, Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations (2019). GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2019-56.

Further, this theory becomes increasingly problematic as it also fails to respect the agency and autonomy of the children, especially when they reach an age where they have more of their own opinions and feelings over their lives and decisions.

While there might be instances where one parent is truly alienating the children from the other, parental alienation syndrome as a concept typically does not hold up in court. Illinois courts have explicitly said, “throw out the words ‘parental alienation syndrome,’” when discussing a party’s reliance on the theory. In re Marriage of Bates, 212 Ill.2d 489, 289 Ill.Dec. 218, 819 N.E.2d 714 (Ill. 2004). Further, parental alienation syndrome is not recognized in the field of psychology or psychiatry either. This syndrome is not found in the DSM-5, nor is it recognized by the American Psychological Association, American Medical Association, or the World Health Organization.

While the syndrome itself is not recognized in the fields of law, psychiatry, or psychology, there are still measures that can be taken to minimize the potential alienation of one parent. In Illinois, when parties take a parentage matter to court, they are required to submit a proposed parenting plan. 750 ILCS 5/602.10(a). In this parenting plan, it can be a good idea to include a paragraph or two about how each parent will do their best to maintain and foster the love and respect of the children toward each parent and will cooperate to ensure that the children have a strong relationship with both parents. Obviously, this is easier said than done, but it is a good beginning step toward preventing alienation and creating healthy relationships for the children with both parents.

All in all, while there may not be a specific syndrome as proposed by Dr. Gardner, parental alienation can still present an issue in many domestic relations cases. In these cases, it is prudent to first attempt to address the future issue in the proposed parenting plan. If a parent refuses, that might constitute a preliminary sign that alienation is occurring. It is also extremely important to give credence and value to what the children are saying. Regardless of their age, it is important to rule out a potential underlying reason for why they are so hesitant to spend time with one parent. While it is likely that this just has to do with them being more comfortable with their primary caregiver, in order to ensure the safety and well-being of the children, reasonable efforts should be made to determine that there are no outside factors contributing to their reluctance to see one of their parents.

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