An unfounded psychological theory has been used to unfairly wrest child custody from mothers, threatens to influence more custody cases, even after these theories were discredited.
In some of the worst cases many mothers have been forced to file for bankruptcy as a result of the exorbitant fees paid to court-ordered psychological evaluators, and their contact with the children is severely curtailed.
Parental Alienation Syndrome
The most notorious junk science theory used in custody cases is Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Child psychologist Richard Gardner coined PAS in 1985 to describe what he believed to be a high number of false allegations of child sexual abuse in his personal caseload. According to Gardner's theory, "the child viciously vilifies one of the parents and idealizes the other" and in 80 to 90 percent of the cases the father is the vilified one.
In the vast majority of PAS cases in his caseload, Gardner recommended the removal of the children from the mother's home and placement with the father, and following this transfer recommended a "period of decompression and debriefing in which the mother has no opportunity at all for input to the children...to give the children the opportunity to reestablish the relationship with the alienated father, without significant contamination of the process by the brainwashing mother."
Gardner's theory is based, in part, on findings of Judith Wallerstein and Joan Kelly that upon divorce children sometimes align with one parent and reject the other-without taking into account that in all but the cases involving the most violent families, those children resolved their behavior as they matured. Reputable psychological and medical professionals do not recognize PAS as a valid syndrome, nor does the American Psychological Association recognize it as a mental disorder, and it has not been peer reviewed in psychological journals. Gardner's books are self-published and they are not held at most university and research libraries. Gardner has provided no research findings to substantiate his claims about his syndrome. It is merely his opinion based upon his personal observations of cases in his private practice.
His professional peers have expressed their disdain for PAS. Dr. Paul J. Fink, a past president of the American Psychiatric Association and president of the Leadership Council on Mental Health, Justice, and the Media, has stated, "PAS as a scientific theory has been excoriated by legitimate researchers across the nation. Judged solely on his merits, Dr. Gardner should be a rather pathetic footnote or an example of poor scientific standards."
PAS in the Courts
When Gardner's testimony on the validity of PAS itself has been challenged in court it has usually been rejected. Professor Emerita and Research Professor of Law at University of California, Davis, Carol Bruch, says these cases "reveal two areas of concern. First, courts are consistent in refusing to permit Gardner to testify on the truth or falsity of witnesses, noting that this question is reserved to the trier of fact. Second, most US courts considering the question agree that PAS has not been generally accepted by professionals and does not meet the applicable test for scientific reliability."
Despite the widespread condemnation of PAS, it continues to appear in courtrooms, presumably because attorneys can use it to make a scientific-sounding argument to give custody to the father.
In recent years, PAS has been greatly expanded to include cases of all sorts in which a child refuses to visit the non-custodial parent, regardless of whether or not sexual abuse allegations have been made. The definition of "alienation" has broadened to mean "difficulties stemming from the child's disproportionate, persistent, and unreasonable negative feelings and beliefs towards a parent."
Another Alienation Proponent
Psychologist Douglas Darnall is an "alienation" proponent who works in private practice and serves as the court psychologist for Trumbull County Family Court in Warren, Ohio. He describes "parental alienation," which he differentiates from PAS, as "any constellation of behaviors, whether conscious or unconscious, that could evoke a disturbance in the relationship between a child and the other parent." These expanded and vague definitions leave the door open for professional abuses and malicious allegations to be made against mothers.
Like Gardner, Darnall has not won recognition by his peers. In fact, he faced allegations by the Ohio State Board of Psychology that in his private practice he engaged in professional misconduct, including negligence, impaired objectivity and dual relationships, lack of regard for the welfare of the client, and incompetence. Like PAS, Darnall's alienation theory continues to find its way into the courts.
In another case of junk science being used as a weapon against parents and children, the New York Post reported on charges placed against a group of highly paid mental health experts and child-guardians who were recruited by the company Soft Split LCC. They promoted their services on a web site that that offered "tips on how to negotiate divorce and custody fights." Some experts also participated in online chat rooms accessed through the site. Big-name clientele included former Mayor Rudy Guiliani, Revlon CEO Ron Perelman and publishing queen Judith Regan.
A group of mothers and fathers who questioned the ethics of this practice filed suit, saying "that business link was never revealed in court when some of the experts were assigned by judges to at least eight known cases." One unnamed parent cited in the article "was shocked to discover that her exhusband's lawyer was part of Soft Split - along with all four experts assigned by the court to her case. The woman's lawyer demanded a conflict-of-interest hearing in February, during which three Soft Split experts admitted that they had hoped to make money from their affiliation with the Web company."
The group of parents formed their own support group, The Family Justice Project. They seek to reform the New York child custody proceedings so that children's best interests are protected.
Author's Note: The creator of Parental Alienation Syndrome, Dr. Richard Gardner, committed suicide on May 25, 2003. Gardner's work has created a generation of mothers and children scarred psychologically and, in many cases, physically by the court rulings he has influenced. In one of his earliest cases, a Maryland physicist he labeled a "parental alienator," unfit to retain custody of her children, was subsequently shot dead by her ex-husband. Still Gardner did not change his view that the wife was the true villain; her lies, he insisted, had made the husband temporarily psychotic."
Trish Wilson, is currently an editor for Expository Magazine. Her web page, The Women's Network at http:/ /members.aol.com/asherah, offers more information on custody, father's rights, and related issues.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Jan/Feb 2004
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