Courts criticized for recognizing 'parental alienation'
Kathryn Blaze Carlson, National Post
Saturday, March 28, 2009
More than ever before, Canada's judges are recognizing that some children of divorced and warring parents are not simply living an unfortunate predicament, but rather are victims of child abuse and suffering from Parental Alienation Syndrome.
Though debate swirls as to whether the occurrence should be termed a syndrome, a disorder or simply "parental alienation," Canadian and American judges, lawyers and psychologists are increasingly buying into a view that sees programming a child to despise a non-custodial parent as grounds for removing the "brainwashed" child from the alienating parent's custody -- or what is known in the extreme as a court-ordered "parentectomy."
Yesterday in Toronto, about 200 of those lawyers, parents and psychologists kicked off Canada's first international conference on this lesser-known subject, a concept developed by psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gardner in 1985 but which is increasingly catching the attention of a broader audience.
High-profile and extreme cases in Ontario and British Columbia, as well as that of celebrity actor Alec Baldwin, have sparked debate over whether it is appropriate for courts to accept these extreme views of parental-custody disputes, or whether they are harmfully overstepping their bounds.
In the past two months alone, an Ontario Superior Court judge and a British Columbia Supreme Court judge ruled in both cases that the parent who embarked on a "campaign of vengefulness" toward the other parent must relinquish any custodial or visitation rights of his or her child for at least a period of about one year.
In the British Columbia case, which wrapped up last week, Justice Donna Martinson ruled that the mother had been "resourceful, highly manipulative, and untruthful" and upheld the court's previous decision to grant sole custody to the targeted father. According to court documents, the mother "undermined" the child's relationship with her therapist, breached an earlier court order by sneaking inappropriate messages to the child through a birthday card, taunted the child with pictures of the dog she left behind upon moving in with her father, and accused the father of abuse -- as many alienating parents do.
And in the Ontario case, the judge recommended the targeted parent and his daughter attend a controversial four-day Dallas-based Family Workshop in Parental Alienation that some opponents liken to a "deprogramming" centre.
Though these cases garnered headlines, praise and backlash alike, they are but a small and extreme sample of a wider trend that sees the targeted parent acquire at least some modicum of interim custody. Between 1987 and January 31, 2009, there have been roughly 74 cases in which Canada's courts acknowledged parental alienation in its decision, according to research presented at the conference by Gene Colman, a Toronto lawyer.
Significantly, 53 of those cases occurred in the past eight years and 28 of them occurred in Ontario. Out of the total 74 cases, the mother was determined to be the alienator about two-thirds of the time.
While many agree that parental alienation is a sad phenomenon, tension arises over whether children should be plucked from their homes and planted into the custody of the very parent they have been conditioned to despise or even fear. Some go so far as to criticize the system for what they consider to be "Orwellian interference."
One blogger on a divorce custody Web site wrote that the children involved in Canada's recent cases are "being psychologically tortured, kidnapped" and dismissed the alleged parental alienation as "fictitious." Another blogger responded in kind, also citing "torture."
But to one Ontario father at the conference, parental alienation is anything but fictitious -- he says it is to blame for depriving him of time with his three daughters and the "get-up-and-go" to find a job since being let go in 2002. He asked not to be identified as the case is now before the courts.
"I was kicked out of the house in 2003, and my visitation with the girls became sporadic since then," he said, adding that his ex-wife has repeatedly violated visitation orders. "Their mother just slowly started taking them away from me, a little bit more, then a little bit more, and a little bit more to the point where I haven't seen my eldest daughter since June, 2006."
He said he is sure his youngest daughter misses him, from her reactions the few times he has been allowed to see her. "She'll run up to me and just wrap her arms around me. But when I hug the oldest one, it's like hugging a totem pole -- she's just not even there. I feel like I've lost her." Though he hopes to gain custody of his daughters, he said he would never retaliate by depriving his children of contact with their mother.
Indeed, some believe a swift transfer of a child from one parent to another carries its own set of problems, which include the trauma associated with broken attachments, trust issues, as well as low self-esteem and depression.
But Richard Warshak, a Dallas psychologist who runs the Family Workshop in Parental Alienation and author of the popular book Divorce Poison, said while children suffering from "toxic parenting" may at first resist change, their stunned protest quickly dissolves and they are often grateful for the intervention.
"Anyone who has worked with divorcing families have seen angry parents lose sight of what's best for their child," he said. "People don't want to stick their heads in the sand anymore. They are increasingly recognizing the damage and that sometimes children need adults to protect them and manage this."
Those who recognize parental alienation as a legitimate concern insist that damage includes depression, suffering adversely in future relationships, and feelings of abandonment, guilt, and unworthiness.
Toronto lawyer Brian Ludmer, who is trying to launch a family reunification workshop in Canada, said while it is sometimes difficult to overcome the 'he-said, she-said' factor in such cases, third-party witness statements and interviews with the child are important in solidifying a case against an alienator.
"It is important that everyone work together to properly determine whether the parent is a good trustee of that child's relationship with the other parent," said Mr. Ludmer, who is speaking at the conference today.
He was quick to add that care should be taken to ensure the interview does not make a child feel pitted against either parent which is, ironically, the very stress the court process is attempting to mitigate. Likewise, Mr. Ludmer and others at the conference said professionals should be careful not to over-diagnose or exaggerate parental alienation -- one psychologist at the convention said he has been pressured by lawyers to "use the language of parental alienation syndrome" in his custody assessments.
This raises another set of red flags among those who fear that parental alienation cases may result in a child being transferred to the custody of an abusive parent, essentially undermining the custodial parent's right to protect the child and justifiably refuse contact.
But Dr. Demosthenes Lorandos, a psychologist and lawyer who will speak at the conference Saturday, said these concerns are, for the most part, unfounded.
"The idea that parental alienation is a scheme to allow abusers to get custody of children is a baseless potshot by people who have either had their children taken away because of abuse or who don't have a real sense or knowledge of what's going on," said Dr. Lorandos. "This isn't some sort of Machiavellian scam. This abuse is happening, and that's the bottom line."
Parental Alienation Syndrome A disorder arising primarily in the context of child-custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child's campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign without justification. It results from the combination of a programming parent's indoctrinations and the child's own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.
Alienator The person who participates in the alienating behavior toward a parent or significant other. The three categories of alienator are Naive Alienator, Active Alienator, Obsessed Alienator.
Targeted parent The parent who is the target or object of the alienating behaviour.
Parentectomy The forced removal of the "brainwashed" child from an alienating parent's custody.
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