November 12, 2013
In 1985, an American psychiatrist named Richard Gardner developed the concept of Parental Alienation Syndrome (“PAS”). According to Gardner, one parent involved in a family court case often accused the other of abusive behaviors toward the couple’s children in order to alienate the accused parent from the children. A large proportion of Gardner’s focus was on sexual abuse allegations. Not only did he believe that there was an epidemic of false allegations of sexual abuse, but he also stirred controversy by arguing in his writings that pedophilia is a normal variant of human sexuality. Gardner’s theories of parental alienation, while subject to criticism, fundamentally impacted the family court system in the United States and even internationally.
Since that time, family courts and others discussing family court proceedings have believed in the idea that one parent (often the mother) tends to negatively influence her children against the other parent, with the goal of interfering with the parental relationship. This belief became ingrained in the family court rulings and practices, even leading to changes in the law. Included in this belief is the understanding that the “alienating” parent will go so far as to invent child abuse and/or domestic violence by the other parent because the alienating parent is deeply and immorally motivated to cause alienation between the accused parent and the children.
These policies led to a relatively common practice of parents who report abuse in family court being disbelieved, with judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and experts declaring that such allegations during the course of a custody battle have no weight. There was, and probably continues to be, an unofficial presumption that when abuse is reported by a parent or a child during custody proceedings, that it likely is untrue. While PAS was never officially recognized as a syndrome in the DSM, the diagnostic statistical manual of mental disorders, its inclusion was seriously considered and debated.
Actor Alec Baldwin even wrote a book in 2008 about what he believes was his experience with PAS during his divorce proceedings.
These beliefs have led to many shocking results in custody cases including protective parents who report concerns of abuse themselves losing custody and visitation rights to their children, being declared alienators who are unsupportive of the accused parent’s relationship with the child. They have led to practices including family court systems in which highly compensated custody evaluators come up with standard recommendations in line with the prevalent PAS philosophies of the court system and judges who rubber-stamp these recommendations.
Several jurisdictions have been investigated for these failings in recent times, as a number of active nonprofit organizations have sprung up to protest these leanings. These nonprofits have pointed to numerous horrible scenarios in which protective parents have worked through the court system at protecting their children from abuse by the other parent, reporting information in a timely and accurate manner, and themselves ending up banned from contact with their children or strictly limited from that contact due to an alienation finding, while the abusive parent is given unsupervised and frequent contact with the children, the court failing to protect the children from abuse that in quite a few cases even led to the children’s murder by the abuser.
For these reasons, I was surprised to read today that in 2008 an Australian psychological board disciplined a prominent Australian psychologist for relying on PAS in a family court case which had led to loss of custody by a mother. The Board found that he “acted in a way that constituted unsatisfactory conduct” thus violating the code of ethics. See the Australian article at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/nation/ruling-debunks-custody-diagn….
While the latest version of the DSM-V rejected PAS for inclusion, the influence of PAS continues to this day.