Parental Alienation and the Legal System
It is no secret that the number of cases involving parental alienation have been increasing dramatically over the decade. With the national average divorce rate being 50%, the impact of separated parents does not only heavily affect the parties involved, but it also creates an atmosphere where children may feel the pressure, temptation, and beliefs that are being shared after they see both their parents at opposite ends. Parental alienation can result in kids feeling like they must choose which parent they should love and which parent they should push to the side. It creates a barrier not only in the child-parent dynamic, but also a barrier for the child to have any relationship in the future. What parents, lawyers, therapists, and the legal system commonly fail to understand is that alienation is subtle, complicated, and is so powerful. I have seen firsthand the true effects of alienation, and it only took me ten years to come to the realization that it happened and overcome the guilt that comes with it. There are a lot of strings attached to parental alienation and a lot of barriers that can prevent it from never happening, but why is it so hard for the legal system to reveal? Why do parents have to go back and forth with court hearings and mediations and spend thousands of dollars to uncover the abuse? Through my findings, I uncover a few things that can help identify why the legal system is behind, the affects of alienation, and my personal experience with this delicate topic.
It is very common for children to align more with one parent than the other, especially in early childhood years, based on gender or interests of the child. Unfortunately, this can be used against the other parent after separation and during divorce. In the case of alienation, the parent that is doing the alienation can use the child to create even a stronger barrier between the other parent. Alienation can also occur when there are domestic abuse claims or even if one parent tends to spend more time at work than they do at home. Alienation can typically occur after there is a big break in the family or after the two parents start dealing with the divorce side of things (money and assets). A common occurrence is one parent accusing the other of parental alienation, even though they themselves are the ones alienating the children. This is done merely out of hate or spite because of the affect of the divorce preceding’s.
The Backbone Collective, a New Zealand group, decided to gather survey responses from women of the Family Court that have dealt with divorce and child custody issues. In their findings, they discovered that “When mothers are labelled as parental alienators, they are framed as psychologically abusive towards their children, with the result that many children are forced against their wishes into custody and contact with abusive parents” (Mackenzie, Herbert, Robertson, 2020). There is little a parent can do to remove the label of being the alienator even if it is a false accusation. The more they share evidence of abuse by the other parent, the more harm can occur to them because it can illustrate “evidence” of alienation.
Backbone decided to split up the women into two groups: PA or NPA. The PA group stood for those who were accused of parental alienation and the NPA were the women who were not accused of parental alienation. Backbone chose to collect insights into mothers’ and their account of experiencing violence and abuse against them and their children while in the relationship (Mackenzie, Herbert, Robertson, 2020). They asked the women if the abused had been charged with physically or sexually assaulting their children and as a result, 8% of the women in the PA group said that he had been and 44% of those women reported that the abuser was convicted. However, these women were the ones being accused of parental alienation, even though there were prior convictions of the father harming the child. According to Mackenzie, Herbert, and Robertson, this suggests that “…many professionals take little or no notice of such ‘independent’ evidence in evaluating women’s claims of abuse and/or the suitability of the offender to have children placed in his care.” Even though 1/3 of the women in the PA group had a protection order in place, negative evaluations of the women persisted (Mackenzie, Herbert, Robertson, 2020). Though one parent may see the other as unsafe, if the court sees the abuser as “safe”, they are likely to make parenting orders that put the child in harm’s way.
At the end of the survey, Backbone asked the women in the PA group why they thought the court saw him as safe. The group reported more often than not that they thought the court saw the abuser as safe because “it did not believe he was abusive”, “it accepted he had been abusive to the children but thought he was no longer dangerous”, “it accepted he was abusive to the mother but nevertheless thought him safe to the children”, and/or “it regarded the violence and abuse as limited to conflict around separation” (Mackenzie, Herbert, Robertson, 2020). The courts viewed violence that occurred before separation as something that would not occur post separation. Thousands of cases appear each year, each one different but with pieces that are reflective of one another. Not only are we dealing with judges who aren’t educated and are unknown as to what the warning signs are of parental alienation, we are also dealing with a legal system that does not do it’s due diligence after the child custody hearing. There may be incidents that occur, or motions filed after the final custody order, but who is to say if it was the right choice? Who is to say that alienation is not still occurring, or abuse is no longer a factor? It is scary to think that once the judge exits the court room, the case is filed away upon the thousands of other cases that may or may have not been successful. I am not saying that there needs to be someone checking in every year after the order, I’m saying that there needs to be accountability and more advice to judges and lawyers by experts that have seen and dealt with parental alienation.
There are underlying views and biases of women and males as parents when it comes to the opinion of judges. According to Mackenzie, “… the Family Law system supports an underlying view of some professionals that women lie and are vindictive, and this view finds easy expression through the use of parental alienation (or other similar concepts)” (Mackenzie, Herbert, Robertson, 2020). There is also another view that fathers are usually the abusive parent in the relationship and therefore, custody tends to lean more towards the mother. There should never be a custody decision that is determined based on a judges pre-determined views of past child custody cases or experiences dealing with abuse allegations from a mother or father. However, we live in a world where there is no separation and each case are not independent of the next.
In Giancarlo and Rottmann’s review of parental alienation, they find that “Severely alienated children appear emotionally constricted but are also likely to behave very inappropriately at times, manifesting conduct disorders at least in the presence of the rejected parent. For example, expressions of hatred, rage, contempt, rudeness, swearing… spying on the rejected parent are all commonly reported…” (Giancarlo, Rottmann, 2015). Even if the child is only spending 50% of their time with the parent that is trying to alienate the other, there still is a huge amount of impact that parent can have on creating those barriers and limiting the relationship of the child and the targeted parent (parent that is being accused of false abuse, the parent that is not alienating the children). Based on Giancarlo and Rottmann’s findings, if the targeted parent were to take legal action during or even after the divorce, it seems to “…reinforce the misguided belief in the children that the targeted parent is “out to get” the alienating parent” (Giancarlo, Rottmann, 2015). Even though the targeted parent has good intentions around bringing the issues to court, it is commonly used as ammunition and as a way for the parent who is alienating to use it and lie to the children. Not only are the children heavily impacted by the results of the child custody motions, they also feel the pain of the legal and associated costs that can result in a loss of a home plus the added stress that it can bring to the parents. No matter how hard parents try to hide their emotions or stress, children feel it and will almost always carry it with them.
Unbeknownst to both of my parents, they alienated my sister and I from each other as well as alienated us from the other parent. While I have forgiven both, the struggle of seeing your parents get a divorce, experiencing the separation of the family into two, and not having contact with my sister for a couple years was very difficult. I ended up seeking help from the Conscious Co-Parenting Institute who helped me understand the underlying causes of the divorce, the family dynamics at play, and myself. I have seen the work they have done to achieve reunification in families and as a result, I was able to reunite with my mom after a couple of years of silence.
We cannot continue without a proper procedure in place and we cannot rely on lawyers to decide what is best for the children, especially when they are either lacking the experience or failing to put your best needs first. Children want to have a relationship with both of their parents, but parents must make it easier for the child to be in relationship with them. The legal system will probably never truly be fair, especially when it comes to child custody. There have been instances of judges allowing the alienating parents to choose the mental health professionals for their children to use (Giancarlo, Rottmann, 2015). There are a lot of factors that are working against the targeted parents, but in order to make a shift towards a better relationship with the child, the targeted parent needs to start taking control and finding a lawyer that will do the work. The Conscious Co-Parenting Institute also helps parents that are struggling with divorce and are having a strained relationship with their child or children. A lawyer willing to do the work and a company that will not only make sense of the family dynamic, but will help the lawyer prepare the necessary evidence, will only assist in attaining a better future for the child. There needs to be more focus on the children that are being affected by divorce and alienation. There needs to be more concern for a child’s welfare, especially when abuse or alienation are a factor. The judges, lawyers, therapists, and the parents need to start asking “What about the Kids?”
Mackenzie, Deborah, et al. “’It’s Not OK’, but ‘It’ Never Happened: Parental Alienation Accusations Undermine Children’s Safety in the New Zealand Family Court.” Journal of Social Welfare & Family Law, vol. 42, no. 1, Mar. 2020, pp. 106–117. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09649069.2020.1701942.
Jaffe, Peter G., et al. “Early Identification and Prevention of Parent–Child Alienation: A Framework for Balancing Risks and Benefits of Intervention.” Family Court Review, vol. 48, no. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 136–152. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1744-1617.2009.01294.x.
Giancarlo, Christine, and Kara Rottmann. “Kids Come Last: The Effect of Family Law Involvement in Parental Alienation.” International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences: Annual Review, vol. 9, May 2015, pp. 27–42. EBSCOhost, doi:10.18848/1833-1882/CGP/v09/53552.