Parental Alienation is a common term these days, often used by one parent or another during a divorce or custody proceeding. There appears to be misconceptions regarding parental alienation. When a claim of parental alienation is made, there are a number of factors that must be addressed including whether the issue is being caused by the alienating parent or by the rejected/targeted parent; whether the child’s rejection is justified; whether there is abuse involved; and whether the allegations are a result of over-protective parenting – just to name a few.
Family law attorneys face a number of challenges in true parental alienation cases, including a lack of specific proof, difficultly in assessing the allegation based upon the highly emotional and convincing account of the incidents, and fear. An attorney or other professionals may shy away from direct confrontation with the alienating parent out of fear of being wrong. How should an attorney properly assess and properly advise a client? First and foremost, there needs to be a screen for domestic violence. It is critically important to make sure that a claim of alienation is not a disguised for a parent’s own violent or abusive behavior. Some critics deny that a parent can make a child go along with false allegations of physical abuse; however, it can and does happen. A child can be easily influenced by authority figures, including their parents, and can grow to be a staunch corroborator. It is important to note that there tends to be fewer false allegations of physical abuse than of other forms of abuse – such as emotional abuse, presumably because it is easier to accuse someone of something that leaves no physical sign and has no third-party witness. When allegations of emotional abuse are being leveled, is it perhaps differences in parental judgment that is being framed as “abusive” by the absent parent? These are issues that an attorney must explore to properly serve his or her client and more importantly to protect the child who is caught in the middle.
Once domestic violence and physical abuse have been ruled out, the next issue that must be addressed is the cause of the child’s rejection of the parent. To do this, attorneys and the court often turn to a neutral mental health professional, typically a psychologist familiar with family law appointed by the court to conduct an evaluation and submit a report. These mental health professionals have the education and training to understand the dynamics of these complex cases and can be an invaluable resource to practitioner litigating these issues, and of course to the court. The court-appointed expert will have access to both parties and the children and his or her role will be to first identify the causation and rejection of a parent by the child, and to determine whether or not it is the result of alienation. Once the evaluation is complete and the psychologists report has been generated, in an ideal world, counsel for the parties work together and develop a plan, incorporating the recommendations of the psychologist – generally through a stipulated order, or upon the motion of a party and a resulting Court order.
Often, a client will ask about their right to parent their child – they do not understand that the term “parenting time” is for the benefit of the child, not the parent. No doubt, an attorney’s job is to advocate on behalf of his or her client; but an attorney also has a duty to advocate in accordance with the best interest of the child. It is not only the morally right thing to do, it is statutory. A good family law attorney understands the importance of counseling clients clients about the best interest factors, including a child’s reasonable preference and the moral fitness of the parties as it relates the child. Parents need to understand that obstructionist tactics on the part of a parent can and do backfire.
Alienation is a complex problem that family courts are facing with increased frequency. Attorneys and the court are often faced with conflicting allegations, usually in the form of he-said/she-said accusations. Navigating these cases can be very difficult and while there is no easy solution, early cooperation between parents, lawyers and mental health professionals is the best first approach as it may avoid lengthy judicial intervention. Unfortunately, early cooperation is not always possible. Being aware of the complexities of alienation cases and the need for an immediate, collaborative approach is foundational for success in these types of cases.
Contact me at (248) 647-7900 if you have concerns regarding parental alienation.