Few family law cases are as heartbreaking as those involving Parental Alienation Syndrome. In PAS cases one parent has turned his or her children against the other parent, destroying the loving bonds the children and the target parent once enjoyed. Unfortunately, women’s advocate Rev. Anne Grant misunderstands PAS, portraying it as a nonexistent fraud in her June 27 column "The discredited ’Parental Alienation Syndrome.’" Grant claims that judicial recognition of PAS has had "devastating effects" on families, and cites a few cases where abusive or allegedly abusive fathers have used PAS to win shared or sole custody.
Grant is correct that there are fathers who have alienated their own children through their abuse or personality defects, and who attempt to shift the blame to their children’s mothers by falsely claiming PAS. Yet parental alienation is a common, well-documented phenomenon. For example, a longitudinal study published by the American Bar Association in 2003 followed 700 "high conflict" divorce cases over a 12 year period and found that elements of PAS were present in the vast majority of the cases studied.
In family law cases, false accusations of any and all types of maltreatment, including PAS, are used to gain advantage. Since false accusations of domestic violence and child sexual abuse are common, should we then conclude that battering and molestation don’t exist?
The pain and heartache PAS causes children would be hard to overstate. One prominent example is the LaMusga case decided by the California Supreme Court in 2004. In that case, Gary LaMusga’s son’s kindergarten teacher testified that the kindergarten boy told her "my dad lies in court," and said that his mother had told him this. The teacher explained:
"I finally sat down with him and told him that it was OK for him to love his daddy. I basically gave him permission to love his father. And he seemed brightened by that…I’m not sure that he was aware that he could do that."
Family law mediators J. Michael Bone, Ph.D. and Michael R. Walsh explain that in PAS situations children "live in a state of chronic upset and threat of reprisal" and fear abandonment. Bone and Walsh note that when children "express positive approval of the absent parent, the consequences can be very serious…The child is continually being put through various loyalty tests…the alienating parent thus forces the child to choose [between] parents…in direct opposition to a child’s emotional well being."
Grant claims that in PAS cases abusers "easily gain the upper hand…The abusive parent charges the protective parent with ’brainwashing’ the children, and wins sole custody." Yet such custody transfers are rare. Courts lean heavily towards mothers as custodial parents, and are hesitant to undo existing custody arrangements. Even in the high-profile cases publicized by critics of PAS, the courts usually had good reason to transfer custody from the mothers to the fathers.
In one case highlighted by PBS in Breaking the Silence: Children’s Stories, their 2005 documentary on PAS, the filmmakers claimed that the mother had unjustly lost custody of her daughter to her ex-husband. Yet it was subsequently revealed that a California Juvenile Court had found the mother culpable of multiple acts of child abuse and the court transferred custody to the father to protect the girl.
The two most famous PAS cases of recent times are the Bridget Marks and Amy Neustein cases. In both instances mothers lost custody of their daughters after making false allegations of sexual abuse. Marks garnered widespread media sympathy from Bill O’Reilly, Dr. Phil, Larry King and others, yet all five judges ruling on the case concluded that Marks had coached her girls to believe they had been sexually molested by their father.
Neustein’s now adult daughter, Sherry Orbach, publicly refuted her mother’s claims last year, writing that when she was a child her mother "would begin by telling me a sordid–and false–story about my father…She then instructed me to repeat the story word for word until she was satisfied with my rendition." According to Orbach:
"My father never sexually abused me…I…owe my existence as a normal young adult to the family judges…who helped me reunite with my father in the face of considerable opposition in the media."
Grant claims that PAS "has been discredited by the American Psychological Association." In reality, the APA has given mixed messages on PAS, which is reflective of the larger controversy over it.
This controversy is largely political. Children are vulnerable and impressionable, and parents in emotionally-charged divorces are quite capable of using them as tools of their anger. It is true that family courts must weed out false claims of PAS made by abusive or manipulative parents. It is also true that courts must act decisively to protect children from the emotional abuse inflicted by alienating ones.
- Providence Journal7/8/06