I have written on the topic of parental alienation multiple times over the years. Recently I received a call from a colleague asking for advice on how to handle a case that he had, and a few days later a new client with a case with disturbing fact patterns that screamed of parental alienation retained me in a divorce.
I am asked time and time again, is parental alienation a science, is it a syndrome, is it diagnosable? Does that matter? In the end, no. Diagnosable mental illness or not, the syndrome itself does exist.
The situation is described as when a child – usually one whose parents are engaged in a high conflict divorce – allies himself or herself strongly with one parent and strongly rejects the other parent without legitimate justification such as abuse or neglect.
The parent in control becomes like a cult environment. The child is isolated from anything to do with the other parent or their family and friends and is often isolated from anything outside of the controlling parent’s sphere of influence. This can be an active or passive act on the controlling parent’s part.
The key issue here is that the child cannot articulate any rational basis for their intense dislike of the other parent. If there are legitimate reasons, then it is not parental alienation.
Reunification counseling may be called for. Yet, without addressing the underlying issue, however, reunification counseling will not work and alienation will only become worse.
As a scientific matter, the DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, of the American Psychiatric Association) does not categorize parental alienation as a diagnosable illness but does mention it as a form of psychological child abuse.
As such, if you are accused of being the alienating parent, the key is articulating the issues that are going on that have caused the child to act in the way the child is acting towards the other parent. If there are legitimate reasons, then it is not parental alienation.
The accused alienating parent needs to discuss with their attorney how to act in this regard.
Certainly, one can argue the scientific admissibility of parental alienation in court, making a ‘Frye’ or ‘Daubert’ argument, as it is called. But sometimes, why? In the end, often, it is a matter of who cares if it is scientific or not, because by its very definition, if there is a legitimate basis for the child’s reticence to be with the other parent, then there is no parental alienation, and it is an issue with the other parent. We deal with the issue in a manner that is appropriate to its defense and don’t get taken in by the talk of a syndrome.
On the other hand, if you are the parent being alienated, the parent on the other side will sometimes leave a record of alienation. But more often than not, it will be a passive-aggressive phenomenon. The alienating parent will act as the children’s champion. They may say they want the children to have a relationship with the other parent, and that they are doing nothing to discourage the relationship, and they cannot make the children go to visit the other parent.
It is in these circumstances that things become difficult. The usual remedy is reunification counseling. In most cases, one has to go along with this process, because it is legitimate. Time and patience and counseling is needed to patch things up with everyone.
However, let me stress that when issues of parental alienation are involved, and the children cannot rationally articulate why they feel this hostility towards the other parent, and the other aspects exist as specified herein, then reunification counseling will only exacerbate the problem. In cases of parental alienation, immediate intervention is needed, or else the issue only progressively gets worse and more ingrained. An extended reunification counseling session will only play into this syndrome.The reunification counselor has to quickly recognize the issue and advise accordingly, allowing the court to intervene, or there is a good chance we can lose this child. In such circumstances, we often need to obtain our own expert witness and make a motion with the court for action.
Scott Shaw is founder and principal of Shaw Law Firm PC, founded in 1995 and dedicated solely to divorce, family law and child custody matters that must be addressed and decided in the state of Georgia. Shaw Law Firm has offices in Dunwoody/Sandy Springs and serves the greater Metro Atlanta area, particularly the counties of Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb, Cherokee, Forsyth, Paulding, Henry, Fayette, Coweta, Newton, Walton, Bartow and Douglas. Schedule a consultation today or call us at 770-594-8309.