A Policy Proposal [Regarding Parental Alienation]

(emphasis mine)

Given the inherent problems with even the "reformulated" concept of PA, and also the fact that (1) courts and evaluators are unlikely to abandon the concept anytime soon, and (2) alienating behavior is indeed a factual reality, most often inflicted by abusive fathers, this paper offers the following brief outline of an approach to alienation that, if implemented conscientiously, could cabin alienation's use to only those few cases where it is a legitimate issue. Such a proposal could most obviously be adopted by forensic evaluators and guardians ad litem, but it might also be of use to lawyers and to educate judges and legislators.

  1. Assess abuse first. Abuse should always be assessed first whenever there are allegations of abuse. If abuse claims are verified, or substantial risk exists, the remainder of the evaluation should be guided by safety and protection as the dominant concerns; with relationship preservation as only a secondary concern.
  2. Require evaluators to have genuine expertise in both child abuse and domestic violence. Evaluators who lack such expertise should be required to bring in an outside expert. This is a requirement of the APA's ethical custody evaluation guidelines (APA, 1996). "Expertise" requires more than one or two continuing education seminars. It requires in-depth training in abuse and/or in working with abused children or adults. Evaluators who have worked with families primarily in the context of litigation may operate from the same inaccurate assumptions which are widespread in family courts; That is, that many mothers falsely allege abuse out of vengeance, that children are capable of being brainwashed to an extraordinary extent, and so forth. Precisely because assessment of abuse is notoriously dependent on the assessor's predispositions to believe or not believe such claims, actual training and experience working with abused populations is a necessary prerequisite for a valid assessment.
  3. Once abuse is found, alienation claims by the accused abuser should not be considered. Virtually every article about alienation and abuse, including Gardners', gives lip service to the principle that if abuse is real, then alienation is not. However, the current trend propounded by both Johnston and Kelly (2004a, 2004b) and Drozd and Olesen (2004) toward a "multivariate" approach, which evaluates both abuse and alienation simultaneously, unavoidably gives too much attention to alienation claims. This approach undermines recognition of the validity and impact of real abuse claims (Meier, in press). Alienating conduct bound up with a batterer's pattern of abuse should be identified as part of the abuse.
  4. A finding of alienation should not be based on unconfirmed abuse allegations or protective measures by the favored parent. Consider a small thought experiment: When fathers allege that mothers or mothers' new partners are abusing the child, and courts do not confirm the allegation, would it be normal to treat the father as a pernicious alienator from whom the child must be protected? In this author's experience, it is unlikely that experienced family lawyers or evaluators would expect, or advocate for, such treatment. The same standard should hold true for mothers alleging abuse. In short, alienation should not be linked to abuse allegations at all. If alienation is a serious concern, then it is one independent of abuse allegations. To treat abuse allegations as the hallmark of alienation, as is normally done today, is simply to fall into the trap illuminated above: That is, to misuse a claim of alienation to defeat, neutralize, or undermine the seriousness or validity of allegations of abuse. The two concerns should stand or fall, if at all, on their own.
  5. Alienation claims should be evaluated only under two conditions: if (i) the child is actually unreasonably hostile to the other parent and resistant to visits, and (ii) there is active alienating behavior by the "aligned" parent. This approach excludes cases where the parent is engaged in alienating conduct, but the child is not in fact alienated (the vast majority of children, according to Johnston's research). It also excludes cases where the child is unreasonably hostile, but the preferred parent is not the cause. Finally, it excludes cases where the child's hostility is understandable in light of his or her experiences with the disliked parent. These exclusions follow logically if we are to eliminate the misuse of alienation theory to blame protective parents and/or silence abused children. In short, as noted above, true alienation is an issue in only a tiny fraction of cases: less than 10% of children in divorcing/separating families.
  6. In these rare cases, if a child is determined to be unreasonably hostile to the other parent (i.e., the child refuses to visit or is incorrigibly resistant when visiting), the evaluation must seek to determine a cause for the unreasonable hostility. In addition to the above potential reasons (abuse, neglect, batterer-instigated alienation), developmental and situational causes, such as divorce, must be considered. In seeking to identify parentally-caused estrangement/alienation, evaluators should be precluded from giving weight to protective measures such as filing court protective petitions or going to child protection. Otherwise, the alienation label becomes, once again, nothing more than a penalty for disbelieved abuse allegations.
  7. A parent may be accused of alienation only where the parent consciously intends the alienation and specific behaviors can be identified. In the case described earlier, the court explicitly found that the mother was not coaching the child, but posited that her hostility to the father was causing the child to invent sexual abuse scenarios. Of course, this theory is sufficient to negate all abuse allegations in all cases, since hostility can be inferred in most. Such unfounded judicial or evaluator theorizing has been legitimized by the widespread acceptance of the pop psychology attached to the PAS theory and propounded by Gardner and other PAS proponents. The best cure is a clean one: Psychoanalyzing should be prohibited and only identifiable behaviors should be considered in assessing for alienation.
  8. Remedies for confirmed alienation are limited to healing the child's relationship with the estranged parent. Under this proposal, in the rare cases where problematic alienation is found (again, after neglect, abuse, and batterer-instigated alienation are ruled out), evaluators should not seek to undermine the child's relationship with the preferred parent, but rather, to strengthen the child's relationship with the parent from whom s/he is estranged. Thus, family therapy between the child and the estranged parent; therapy for the child, and/or therapy for the preferred parent, might be appropriate. Orders to both parents to cease any derogatory discussion of the other parent may be appropriate. Forced change of custody is not until the child's relationship with the estranged parent is sufficiently healed to make the child comfortable with such a prospect.
  9. Johnston's research confirms what many in the field already knew: that children are resilient and that they are not easily brainwashed into rejecting another parent, at least not without active abuse, coercion, or terrorizing. Courts and evaluators should operate from a healthy appreciation for the range of imperfect parenting that children everywhere survive and for the strength of children's hard-wired love for both parents. They should ensure that safe and loving relationships are made available and invited to flourish, and should trust that children will discern the truth about their loving parents so long as they are able to experience them directly.
Please read the entire article: Parental Alienation Syndrome & Parental Alienation: Research Reviews By Joan S. Meier

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