Preventing Courts from Considering Parental Alienation Will Harm Kids

By Michael Robinson and Glenn Sacks

In "Parental Alienation must be excluded" (Capitol Weekly, 2/18/10), Preston Thymes, the head of public relations for the domestic violence service provider Shelter Outreach Plus, criticizes efforts by Fathers & Families and others to promote recognition of Parental Alienation. While Thynes and Shelter Outreach Plus often do noble work in aiding battered women, Thynes misunderstands several key aspects of Parental Alienation and child custody battles. The Family Law Section of the State Bar of California explains that alienation tactics often include:

"[C]ancel[ing] the other parent’s visit without telling the child that the visit has been cancelled, creating a ’let down’ for the child when that parent does not ’show up’ for the visit. Threats could also be made against the child for wanting to have visitation with the other parent - ’Fine, if you want to see [your other parent] tonight, then you are grounded for the rest of the week.’ Guilt can also be used to influence a child to avoid visitation - ’I’m not feeling well and I wish you would stay here with me, but if you have to see [your other parent] I will understand.’ Rewards can also be used - ’Sure, you can see [your other parent] today, but I thought we would go play laser tag with your friends today.’"

Parental Alienation is a common, well-documented phenomenon that is the subject of numerous studies and articles in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. For example, a longitudinal study published by the American Bar Association in 2003 followed 700 "high conflict" divorce cases over a 12 year period and found that elements of PA were present in the vast majority of the cases studied.

At Fathers & Families, we receive thousands of heart-wrenching calls and letters from parents whose children have been taught to fear or hate them. Both mothers and fathers can be perpetrators of Parental Alienation, but the true victims are always the children.

Thynes asserts that recognizing Parental Alienation as a legitimate issue in custody cases would endanger abused children. But in genuine cases of domestic violence or child abuse, all sides agree that courts need to protect children from abusive parents. Yet there is a large body of evidence which shows that false accusations of domestic violence are a major problem in child custody cases. Unfortunately, Shelter Outreach Plus, like many domestic violence service providers, displays a troubling lack of awareness of this problem. Thynes writes:

"At Shelter Outreach plus, we render any claims of Parental Alienation invalid…we absolutely do everything we can to keep [the father alleged to be abusive] away from those children [including] our legal advocates through restraining orders…"

Thynes apparently feels that a mere accusation equals the truth, and that judges should not even consider whether an accuser is misleading the court.

Thynes and Shelter Outreach Plus favor AB 612, a bill to bar litigants or custody evaluators from making any reference to Parental Alienation in family court. This deeply-flawed bill, which will be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this spring, is opposed by practically all organizations which represent the professionals who work in the family law field. Those listed as opposed include: the Judicial Council; the California Judges Association; the Family Law Section of the State Bar; the California Psychological Association; the Association of Certified Family Law Specialists; the Association of Family Conciliation Courts; and numerous others.

The California Psychological Association writes that the bill ignores the "significant scientific and agreed-upon knowledge base of the last 30 years on children who are alienated" and describes AB 612 as a "scientifically inaccurate measure [which] assumes the truth of any accusation of abuse."

The Assembly analysis explains that AB 612 is so extreme that if it is passed, in court "something as simple as a child not wanting to visit a parent cannot, potentially as a matter of law, be caused by the other parent." The analysis notes:

"[A]ny broad restriction on the information the court can consider could well unintentionally compromise the court’s ability to make determinations that are in children’s best interests, and could inadvertently compromise child safety."

Certainly there are fathers (and mothers) who have alienated their children through inept parenting, narcissism, drug or alcohol problems, or abuse, and who attempt to shift the blame to their exes by falsely claiming Parental Alienation. Sometimes, as research by Janet R. Johnston Ph.D. of San Jose State University confirms, Parental Alienation exists but is only one of several factors causing a deterioration of the parent-child bond. Sometimes parental alienators are unaware of their harmful actions.

Nevertheless, Parental Alienation is a serious problem. When fact-finding in custody cases, judges and custody evaluators must be able to properly consider all available evidence. When abuse is alleged, the accusation merits serious consideration. When Parental Alienation is alleged, the accusation merits serious consideration, too.