I have met and heard the tragic stories of many parents. PA is a function, by and large, of a custodial ex-partner, although some alienation can start while the couple is still together.

This blog is a story of experiences and observations of dysfunctional Family Law (FLAW), an arena pitting parent against parent, with children as the prize. Due to the gender bias in Family Law, that I have observed, this Blog has evolved from a focus solely on PA to one of the broader Family/Children's Rights area and the impact of Feminist mythology on Canadian Jurisprudence and the Divorce Industry.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Parent Alienation - Composite case from actual examples

Parental Alienation Peggy Ward Ph.D , J. Campbell Harvey, J.D.
 

FAMILY WARS Parent Alienation Syndrome - Composite case from actual examples Peggie Ward, Ph.D. (a member of the Advisory Council of the Professional Academy of Custody Evaluators or PACE) and J. Campbell Harvey, J.D. 

The parents of Amy (age 10) and Kevin (age 7) are divorcing after 13 years of marriage. Their father, by temporary stipulation,has moved from the marital home. He is entitled to visit the children on alternating weekends and one evening during the week. Soon, the children refuse to go with him. At first, they do not want to leave Mom; they say they are afraid to go. When Dad comes to the house, Mom tells him that she will "not force the children to go." "Visitation is up to them," and she will "not interfere in their decision". The children refuse to talk with him on the phone. Mom calls him names when he phones and complains constantly about her financial situation, blaming him, all within hearing of the children. Dad attempts to talk with the children about the situation, then to bribe them with movies, shopping trips, toys. They become sullen with him and resistant to coming. 

Anything, routine doctor visits or invitations from a friend, serve as excuses to avoid visits. When asked, the children say "Dad is mean to us." When asked to give specific examples, their stories are not convincing. "He yells too loud when we make noise." "He made me climb all the way to the top of a mountain." "He gets mad at me about my homework." They say he has never hit them, but are afraid he will. These children are in the process of becoming alienated from their father. 

I. Definitions Parental alienation is the creation of a singular relationship between a child and one parent, to the exclusion of the other parent. The fully alienated child is a child who does not wish to have any contact whatsoever with one parent and who expresses only negative feelings for that parent and only positive feelings for the other parent. This child has lost the range of feelings for both parents that is normal for a child. We will call the parent who acts to create such a singular relationship between the child and himself the "alienating parent."

1 The parent who is excluded from the singular relationship is "the target parent." We note that alienation can occur both ways, each parent attempting to alienate the child from the other. 

II. Harm to the Child [T]he persistent quality of the conflict combined with its enduring nature seriously endangers the mental health of the parents and the psychological development of the children. Under the guise of fighting for the child, the parents may succeed in inflicting severe emotional suffering on the very person whose protection and well-being is the presumed rationale for the battle"(emphasis added).

2,3 It is psychologically harmful to children to be deprived of a healthy relationship with one parent. "Visitation agreements must insure that the emotional bond of the child with both parents is protected. There is substantial research that indicates that children need contact with adults of both sexes for balanced development."

4 With the exception of abuse, there is no good reason why a child should not want to spend some time with each of her parents, and, even with abuse, most children still want to maintain some relationship with the abusive parent. It is the job of the parents,the professionals and the courts to see that such contact is possible under safe circumstances.

5 While alienating messages and behavior affect a child negatively and impact upon the child's growth and development, the impact on the child may not vary with the parent's intentions. The effect will be to place the child in a severe loyalty bind, a position wherein the child believes she must choose which of her two parents she will "love" more. To have to choose between parents is itself damaging to the child, and, if the end result is the exclusion of a parent from the child's life, the injury is irreparable. There is a continuum of alienating parental behaviors which cause harm to children, and all positions on this continuum need be of concern to the professionals and the courts. 

III. The Family Systems Approach All families are made up of individuals who live together in relatively stable intimate groups with the ostensible purpose of supporting and caring for each other. Family members develop their own rules and boundaries, spoken and unspoken, about the ways that they will behave with each other, support and care for each other. Each family's rules and boundaries change over time to reflect modifications in membership, the evolving needs of its members and the realities of the outer world. Most changes in the family system are gradual, but some events force cataclysmic upheaval. 

Divorce is usually such an event. Unless a separating family can change its own rules and boundaries without outside intervention, the divorce process itself may reach an impasse, the term applied when the divorce process itself becomes "stuck" and the family system fails to appropriately restructure itself. When there is an impasse, any move by anyone, family member, attorney, spouse, is met with a counter move resulting in no forward progress. The impasse creates a system of its own, with its own membership, rules and boundaries. Although little recognized by professionals, membership in the divorce impasse system will include all members of the family living together and all professionals involved in "helping" the family get a divorce, i.e. the lawyers, mediators, therapists and even the judge. A divorce impasse can occur at three levels: an internal level (inside an individual); an interactional level (between two individuals); and/or an external level (within the larger social and familial system).

6 An impasse at any one of the levels will affect the entire system, and how each individual member responds will affect all members, especially the child. The children themselves are members in both the changing family system and in the developing broader divorce impasse system. As a member of the family system, a child is attached legally, emotionally and psychologically to each of his parents. As a member of a divorce impasse system, a child is often asked to ally himself with one parent or the other, a request which clearly places the child in a loyalty bind. Sometimes the request, either overtly or covertly, is that the child make the alliance exclusive. All members of the divorce impasse system, including the professionals, are affected by the loyalty struggles and may become polarized. 

IV. Motivation for Alienation An alienating parent most likely has strong underlying feelings and emotions left over from earlier unresolved emotional issues which have been resuscitated and compounded by the pain of the divorce. The individual, in attempting to ward off these powerful and intensely uncomfortable feelings, develops behavioral strategies that involve the children. One solution to the pain and anger is to sue for custody of the child and to endeavor to punish the other parent by seeking his or her exclusion. The internal world of an alienating parent can have complex origins which are beyond the scope of this article. If the motivating factors are unconscious, the alienating parent may not feel and/or may not be aware of the feelings and motions described above. Unaware parents may deny alienating behavior convincingly, but nonetheless, be involved in it. Parents may also be aware of their angry or hopeless feelings but may consciously desire to protect the child. They tell their attorneys and the court of their conscious plans; however, despite the conscious desires, they may, unintentionally and unwittingly, engage in alienating behavior, driven by less conscious needs. 

Frequently, the unconscious or unintentional alienating behavior results in the milder form of alienation of the child from the target parent. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize the concrete signs of alienating behavior in order to thwart its development. Courts should not tolerate alienating behavior simply because the intention to alienate is denied. Neither should the courts predicate a custody award on the hopes that the behavior witnessed and cited in court is merely a product of the acrimony generated by the litigation. Parties engaged in a high conflict divorce may show their worst behavior to all, but it is impossible to predict, as the courts so often wish they could do, whether this behavior is merely a product of the acrimony generated by the litigation. 

"The (Father) has also demonstrated some behaviors which have been troublesome to the Master as well as the Guardian ad Litem. The (Father) has been manipulative in the presentation of this case, the Master concludes that he has inappropriately attempted to influence and pressure the children into giving negative information about their mother and he has demonstrated a lack of cooperation and flexibility in respecting the (Mother's) parental rights. It is the hope of the Master that these factors have been the result of this litigation and the hostility between the parties will resolve themselves and not be a factor following this decree." S.L. v. S.L., Superior Court, 1989. Here, the master has been witness to a divorce impasse which may not resolve itself without intervention, and the parties' statements of good intentions should not be relied upon to bring about a reversal of a behavioral trend already witnessed. 

V. Recognition of Alienating Behaviors 

A. The Continuum: Distinguishing between "Typical" Divorce and Alienation In a "cooperative" divorce, both parents work together to restructure their own relationship and their family to allow the children as normal a relationship with each of them as is possible. This means cooperating as to finances, logistics and schedules as well as actively supporting the children's emotional relationships with the other parent and the extended families. All parties to divorce experience a wide range of intense emotions, including rage, disappointment, hurt and fear. 

In "cooperative" divorces the parties consciously try not to engage in behavior they understand to be inflammatory to the other side. However, an angry divorce is not necessarily an alienating one. Alienation occurs when the parties to divorce or custody litigation use their children to meet their own emotional needs, as vehicles to express or carry their intense emotions or as pawns to manipulate as a way of inflicting retribution on the other side. The focus in determining whether or not there is alienation in an angry divorce must be not on the degree of rage or loss expressed, but on behavioral willingness to involve the children. 

Parental alienation occurs along a broad continuum, based on the level of internal distress of the alienating parent, the vulnerability of the child and the responses of the target parent as well as on the responses of the external system (family, attorneys, mental health professionals, the legal system). The range may be from children who experience significant discomfort at transition times (mild), through children who feel compelled to keep separate worlds and identities when with each parent (moderate), to children who refuse to have anything to do with the target parent and become obsessed with their hatred (severe). There are alienating parents who are completely unaware of either their emotional state, the motivation to alienate, or the effects of their behavior (unconscious), while at the other end of the continuum, there are parents who absolutely intend to bind the child to themselves in an exclusive relationship and are explicit in their statements and behavior (overt). 

B. MILD Recognizing the mild form of alienating behavior is tricky: the alienating behavior is subtle, and the alienating parent prone to deny motivation and acts, and driven to verbally assert the opposite of what is true. Although such statements are sincerely meant, the alienating parent's view of the other parent is compromised at this stage, as indicated by behavior. Not aware of the feelings that motivate the unintentional alienating behavior, the evaluator must look at the underlying messages that are given directly to the child. In this milder form there is less polarization of the external sources of the divorce impasse system (at-torneys, courts). The communications to the child of the regard with which the other parent is held is the key to detecting alienating behavior. Examples of mild forms of alienating behavior include: 

1. Little regard for the importance of visitation/contact with the other parent: "You're welcome to visit with Mom; you make the choice; I won't force you." - No encouragement of visits; - No concern over missed visits; - No interest in the child's activities or experiences during visitation (in a positive manner); 

2. Lack of value regarding communication between visits: - No encouragement of communication between visits; - Little awareness of the distress a child may feel if a visit or phone call is missed. 

3. Inability to tolerate the presence of the other parent even at events important to the child: "I won't go to any soccer games if your mother is there." 

4. Disregard for the importance of the relationship to the child: - Displaying a willingness to apply for and accept a new job away from the other parent, without regard to the child's relationship with that parent. At this stage alienation is most likely to become obvious during family system transition times, such as when children leave one home and go to another, when one parent remarries or has another child. The knowledge that a child needs the other parent may be present, but this rational belief may become overwhelmed by internal and interactional problems at this phase. 

C. MODERATE The alienating parent has some awareness of her emotional motivations (fear of loss, rage) and little sense of the value of the target parent. Sometimes, an alienating parent will understand the theoretical importance of the other parent in the life of her child, but believes that in her case, the other parent, due to character deficiencies, cannot be important to the child. Their statements and behaviors are subtle but damaging to the child. 

1. Communications of dislike of visitation: "You can visit with your Dad, but you know how I feel about it." "How can you go to see your father when you know...I've been sick; Aunt B is here..." "Visitation with your Dad is really up to you." 

2. Refusal to hear anything about the other parent (especially if it is good): "That's between you and your father... (regarding reports of visitation; plans for visitation);" I don't want to hear about... (what you did with your father) (especially if it was fun); 

3. Delights in hearing negative news about the other parent; 

4. Refusal to speak directly with the other parent: - When the target parent calls, gives the phone to the child, "It's him," in a disgusted tone of voice. - Hangs up phone on the target parent; - Silently hands the phone to the child when its the target parent calling. 

5. Refusal to allow the target parent physically near: - Target parent not allowed out of the car or even on the property, in the driveway, for pick-up and drop-off visitations; 

6. Doing and undoing statements: Negative comments about the other parent made and then denied: "There are things I could tell you about your Dad, but I'm not that kind of person." "Your Dad is an alcoholic; oh, I shouldn't have said that." 

7. Subtle accusations: "Your Dad wasn't around a lot when you were little." "Your Dad abandoned me." 

8. Destruction of memorabilia of the target person. At this stage alienation continues to occur more frequently during transitional times, but is present in other circumstances. With moderate forms of alienation, all three divorce impasse systems are involved. The alienating parent is facing an internal conflict; the alienating parent is interacting with the spouse in a manner designed to produce conflict; and the external forces, such as therapists, attorneys and the court, are involved in the polarization, at least to some degree. 

D. OVERT When the alienation is overt, the motivation to alienate (the intense hatred of the other) is blatant. The alienating parent is obsessed and sees the target as noxious to himself or herself, the children, and even the world. A history of the marriage is related which reflects nothing but the bad times. The target parent was never worthwhile as a spouse or a parent and is not worthwhile today. Such a parent shows little response to logic, and little ability to confront reality. Many alienating parents at this stage entertain the overt belief that the target parent presents an actual danger of harm to the children. They present this belief as concrete knowledge that if the children spend time with the target parent they will be irreparably harmed in some manner or that they will be brainwashed by the target parent not to value/love the alienating parent. 

1. Statements about the target parent are delusional or false: "Your Mom doesn't pay support" when there is evidence to show payment. "Your father doesn't love us" (or "you") when there is no evidence to that effect. "Your mother drinks too much," "uses drugs," "smokes," etc. when there is no evidence to support these statements., "Your father went out and got the meanest lawyer in town;" 

2. Inclusion of the children as victims of the target parent's bad behavior: "Your Mom abandoned us"; "Your Dad doesn't love us (or you) anymore;" 

3. Overt criticism of the target parent: "Your Mom is a drug addict/alcoholic/violent person..." "What's wrong with your Dad; he never/ always does..." "Your mother endangers your health," "Your father doesn't take good care of you/ doesn't feed you/ take you to the doctor/ understand you during visits." 

4. The children are required to keep secrets from the target parent: "Don't tell your Mom where you've been/ who you've seen/ where you are going/ etc." 

5. Threat of withdrawal of love: "I won't love you if you... (see your Dad, etc.)" "I'm the only one who really loves you." 

6. Extreme lack of courtesy to the target parent. At this stage of alienation, conscious motivation is always present, and the internal, interactional and external systems are fully engaged in supporting the alienation process. 

E. SEVERE By the severe stage, the alienating parent no longer needs to be active. In terms of the motivation, the alienating parent holds no value at all for the other parent (whether motivated by fears, emptiness, helplessness) and the hatred and disdain are completely overt. The alienating parent will do anything to keep the children away from the target parent. At this stage the child is so enmeshed with the alienating parent that he or she agrees totally that the target parent is a villain and the scum of the earth. The child takes on the alienating parent's desires, emotions and hatreds and verbalizes them to all as his own. The child too sees the history of the target parent and family as all negative and is able to neither remember nor express any positive feeling for the target parent. These, and overt cases of the previous paragraph, are the ones that as an attorney invade your private life and lead to emotional over-involvement, although any high conflict alienation case beginning in the moderate category can do so. 

VI. Intervention in Alienation Systems  1. Prevention A. Education In the ideal cooperative divorce, there is little or no alienation occurring. Parents recognize the difference between their own needs and the needs of their children. They fully believe that their children have needed both parents throughout the marriage and will continue to need them after the divorce. Each parent values the role that the other parent can play in the lives of the children and the different interests and talents the other has to offer the children. There is no motivation for alienation because of the value attributed to the other parent. This ideal is infrequently realized in real life because divorce is such an intense change of role, life stage and life style for almost all who go through it. Participants need as much education, support and information as possible to help mitigate the harms that result from high conflict divorce. Certain counties, court systems and other governmental entities are requiring all parents of children involved in a divorce to attend an educational program designed to help them understand the impact of the divorce process on themselves and their children and to recognize the value to children of having both parents involved. 

The parents are educated as to the typical stages in divorce and child development and the impact they can anticipate their divorce having on their children. The studies of the long term effects of divorce and the usual problems that occur are discussed. These programs are designed to be preventative of the kinds of problems that commonly arise when parents do not understand the psychological and emotional consequences their divorce has upon themselves and their children.

7 Other states require mandatory mediation prior to a court trial as a way of avoiding litigation. Mediation advocates believe that mediation is more successful than the courts at avoiding future litigation.

8 While there have been no studies as to the effectiveness of these programs in preventing or ameliorating alienation, in one such program the participants themselves have reported great satisfaction with the program and have recommended that it be expanded.

9 B. Attorneys Attorneys and therapists are the front line professionals in most custody battles. They, too, have an obligation to educate their clients that divorce involves anger, rage, upset, distress, loyalty binds, and kids and parents who manipulate each other in crisis. The clients must be helped to understand the normality of these themes and to learn the strategies for controlling them and outgrowing them. Alternatives to intense battles must be explored. It is the duty of the attorney to advocate for her client. Good representation will include assessing the family system clearly from the client's point of view, and to advocate for that client's interests zealously. However, we believe that such zealous advocacy must occur in the context of the client's long term interests as a member of a restructuring family system. 

Whatever the outcome of the immediate litigation, the client will remain in the family system with contact and relationship with all other members of the family system for the rest of his or her life. Long after the lawyers are gone, the client will live with the effects of the positions taken and the statements made in litigation. The client may later regret the vitriol and the permanency of the damage done by a high conflict divorce. It is the attorney's job to help the client through the immediacy of the pain and the rage and to help the client see the long term view of involved family relations. 

Attorneys must also be acutely cognizant of the divorce impasse system itself and the important part they play in it. Maligning the other spouse, requiring the client to have no further contact with the spouse, prohibiting any temporary agreements or a temporary separation can interfere with a real resolution of the conflict. Zealous advocacy is a poor excuse for actually damaging a client's long term familial relations. Alienation cases present the greatest difficulty for attorneys. In the advocacy role, an attorney is bound to allow the client to define the goal of the representation and to advance that position zealously.

10 An attorney is also bound not to bring or defend frivolous actions.

11 We believe that actions harmful to children could fall under that prohibition.

12 If alienation is in progress, accepting at face value all derogatory comments about the opposing party will ill serve both the client and the attorney, as the client's judgment is emotionally tainted. It is incumbent on the attorney to sufficiently explore with the client his motivation and the reality basis of his beliefs before litigation is undertaken. Careful and thoughtful exploration with the client about the good times in the marriage and the positive parenting traits of the other side will give the attorney much information. 

We believe that under no circumstances should an attorney encourage a client to gain information about the opposing party from a child. Nor should an attorney interview a child even if the child is unrepresented.

13 The willingness of a client to directly involve a child in the litigation should be a red flag that the parent may well be using a child to further her own agenda, even if the child is apparently acquiescent. It is crucial to note, however, that we are describing cases where alienation exists, and other forms of abuse, such as physical or sexual abuse, do not. If abuse is honestly suspected, safety of the spouse or children becomes paramount and full evaluation by a competent professional is a necessity.

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