The Go-To Defense Tactic of Abusers in Family Court Since 1985: A brief history of the debunked concept of "parental alienation"
Let's start here: The term "parental alienation" or "parental alienation syndrome (PAS)" was created by Richard Gardner in 1985 for the purpose of deflecting the court's attention from child abuse claims against fathers. This is a debunked concept, based on Gardner's clinical observations, not scientific data, and is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the World Health Organization (WHO) or the American Medical Association.
Prior to his suicide, Gardner was an unpaid part-time clinical professor of child psychiatry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University. He made his money mainly as a forensic expert on a foundation of disturbing views, discrediting women and children on the basis of his debunked parental alienation theories.
"I don't believe you. I'm going to beat you for saying it. Don't you ever talk that way again about your father." - Richard Gardner (the "creator" of the debunked parental alienation theory) on what a good mother should say to her child if they tell her they have been abused. pic.twitter.com/bwi672C5ge— custodypeace (@custodypeace) September 18, 2022
Maralee McLean, founder of Moms Fight Back has been educating the world on parental alienation for over 30 years. She became a Child advocate, Domestic Violence expert, national professional speaker, and authored “PROSECUTED BUT NOT SILENCED: Courtroom Reform for Sexually Abused Children after she was accused of Parental Alienation Syndrome in 1987 after she brought the father's sexual abuse of their daughter to the attention of the court and lost daughter to the perpetrator. The "expert" on her case was Richard Gardner.
Her story was featured on CNN back in 1997, 10 years after she began the fight to protect her daughter. This CNN segment also featured Richard Gardner explaining his harmful views that result in the dismissal of child abuse and often place children in the "care" of their abuser.
This is Addison who recently bravely spoke up about the impact a counterclaim of "alienation" had on her life after her mother tried to protect her from her father's abuse via the family court system.
Research also shows that a mother's chance of losing her child to the alleged abuser doubles with a crossclaim of "alienation." There is no comparable loss rate when men allege abuse and women cross-claim alienation illustrating the presence of clear gender bias which research also shows is exacerbated by court-appointed experts. (Meier, Joan S. and Dickson, Sean and O'Sullivan, Chris and Rosen, Leora and Hayes, Jeffrey, Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations (2019). GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2019-56; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019-56. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3448062 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3448062)
“Parents who were abusive still have access to their children, THAT'S JUST A FACT. — @tvkatesnow @TODAYshow— custodypeace (@custodypeace) October 1, 2022
The Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act in #VAWA aka #KaydensLaw must be adopted in all 50 U.S. states. @safe_parents @nfvlcgwu @danielle2u pic.twitter.com/rHeymoeTvw
To illustrate how the debunked concept of parental alienation is playing out in the courtrooms, below is an excerpt from the recent testimony of an "alienation expert" by the name of Dr. Robert Evan’s on January 6, 2021 in a Pennsylvania family court. Dr. Evan’s is a “alienation expert” despite the fact that it’s been discredited and dismissed by every credible organization. In other words, he is an expert on something that doesn’t exist.
Here's his recent testimony from January 6, 2021:
Ducote: Can a parent inflict more damage by parental alienation to a child than the parent could inflict by, say, breaking the child’s bones?
Evans: Conceivably, yes.
Ducote: How about, you have a four year old child, and the parent punches the child in the face and leaves two black eyes. Could in your opinion, parental alienation be worse for the child than that?
Evans: Potentially, yes.
Ducote: Okay. How about if you have a 4yr old, and the father forces the child to perform fellatio on him. Could that be less harmful to the child than parental alienation?
Evans: Potentially, yes.
Ducote: How about the father actually fully penetrates his four-year-old daughter’s vagina with his penis. Could that be less harmful to the child than parental alienation?
Full transcripts of Richard Ducote’s cross examination of Dr. Evans can be found here.
Abusers often lodge “parental alienation” or “alienation” claims against a safe parent as a legal strategy to cast doubt on their credibility and valid claims of abuse are labeled as “alienation” by the abusive parent as a defensive tactic.
"Claims of “alienation” become the abuser’s weapon & legal strategy to deflect or minimize allegations of abuse in the family court system when it is their own behavior or actions that caused the children to reject them." - Tina Swithin, Author, Founder of One Mom's Battle and Family Court Awareness Month.
As outlined by Dr. Christine Marie Cocchiola coercive and controlling parents engage in psychological maltreatment not readily researched or understood. She states that the abuser often will use specific tactics to harm his/her child. In some cases, this can cause the child to favor the safe parent and reject the abusive parent because of their behavior, leading to the abusive parent lodging false allegations of alienation via DARVO tactics, where the perpetrator attempts to portray themselves as the victim.
DARVO, a term coined by Dr. Jennifer Freyd of the Center for Institutional Courage, stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.” This occurs, for instance, when a guilty perpetrator assumes the role of “falsely accused” attacks the accuser’s credibility, and blames the accuser for being the perpetrator of a false accusation.
DARVO “turns the true victim into an alleged offender.” — in this case, an “alienator.”
The goal of DARVO is to deflect the accusations and create uncertainty about the facts. When a cross-claim of alienation is made in family court, women (speaking on behalf of themselves & their children seeking protection) are only believed 23% of the time. (Meier) — When in fact those least likely to make false claims of abuse are primary caregivers; usually the mothers. (Pollack).
Last year @profjoanmeier shared data that shows how claims of Parental Alienation by fathers against mothers has become a common & effective tool by which mothers rights and claims are undermined in family court. We expand the conversation at ICCC 2022, coming up soon! pic.twitter.com/sDYkInos8l— The International Coercive Control Conference (@TheCCCIntl) October 5, 2022
As stated by Dr. Christine Marie Cocchiola, “Coercive controllers very often seek out weapons to retain or regain their control. A choice weapon is the very systems intended to protect victims and survivors, such as the judicial system. The coercive controller weaponizes these systems to further inflict harm on his target. --‘If I cannot control you, then I will use the systems intended to protect you, to control you.’”
A counterclaim of parental alienation is the go-to DARVO tactic for a coercive controller to maintain control and continue the abuse of both the safe parent and the children post-separation through the use of the system that should be protecting them.
This is the #familycourt crisis: Throughout the U.S. (& world) in #familycourt mothers & children who allege abuse are disbelieved & at risk/actively abused children are being court-ordered into the "care" of the abusing parent. @danielle2u @nfvlcgwu @SheraFamily #kaydenslaw pic.twitter.com/8LwaY3HXzh— National Safe Parents Organization (@safe_parents) October 2, 2022
Emma Katz, Author of the new ground breaking book, Coercive Control in Children's and Mothers' Lives
states, "if we are to help children break free, then it is vital that the door will be open for them to actually exit their relationship with the abusive parent or greatly reduce their contact with them if the child decides that that’s what they want once they understand what is going on.
But if Family Court is involved, then that door is usually pulled shut. Children are not allowed to exit. They are compelled to continue contact with the perpetrating parent and people may or may not realize just how compelled children are," and this can have catastrophic consequences, in some cases leading to the 100% preventable murder of innocent children by their abusive parent.
"They begged for help to protect their child and were belittled and ignored." - #AngelinaJolie— Family Court Awareness Month (@FCAMonth) October 5, 2022
November is #FamilyCourtAwarenessMonth #KaydensLaw #PiquisLaw #FamilyCourtCrisis pic.twitter.com/qJcnv1cg3A
According to Dr. Jennifer Freyd, as highlighted in a recent NBC News segment, the antidote to DARVO is awareness (the more people know about DARVO, the less effective it becomes) and Institutional Courage “which is a commitment to seek the truth & engage in moral action, despite unpleasantness, risk & short-term cost. It is a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution.” Imagine that.
“Findings show that women are more likely to be the victims of DARVO & third parties that are not educated in DARVO tend to find it effective. — The good news is that if we teach people about the concept of DARVO and the behavior they are much better able to identify it & be less swayed by it.” — Dr. Jennifer Freyd”
How does all of this impact how Lawyers advocate for their clients and their children who have experienced domestic violence/child abuse?
“Some lawyers even tell women not to mention abuse.” — @tvkatesnow @todayshow @nbcnews— custodypeace (@custodypeace) October 1, 2022
Does this sound like a healthy, just system that creates the conditions for the child’s (and survivors') safety, protection, health, and well-being? @safe_parents #kaydenslaw @Hannah_Dreyfus pic.twitter.com/fdtVWSSdiq
As Grant Wyeth states in The Facilitating System of the Family Court, “Parental alienation” has become entrenched in the family court system because it is a gatekeeping device for psychiatrists and guardians ad litem. There is no power for these actors within the system if the reason why children are reluctant to engage with their abusive parent is obvious. If anyone can tell you it is because these children are afraid of them, then the services of these professionals are redundant.
Therefore it is important for their careers to bring a layer of complexity into the situation. Judges need to defer to their assessments, not follow the rational & logical lines of enquiry. This gives these actors far greater power within the system, and a greater ability to influence outcomes themselves.
The first is the economic incentives around the family court system, what Grant Wyeth calls a “repugnant market” — when a market forms around servicing the demand for something that is unethical or amoral. "In the family court’s case, the demand comes from abusive men (in most cases) not wanting to face consequences for their behavior and wishing to maintain their household authority. Lawyers, psychiatrists and professional witnesses all see facilitating this desire as a lucrative opportunity. The concept of “parental alienation” has become the best tool to service this demand."
So although “parental alienation” has no professional credibility, it still maintains huge professional incentives.” (Grant Wyeth, 2021)
Once the court founds a claim of "alienation" the children are removed (sometimes violently) from their safe parent and forced to reunite with their alleged abusive parent via a reunification camp.
Danielle Pollack of the National Family Violence Law Center and policy advisor on VAWA Kayden's Law explains reunification camps:
"In private custody litigation, children are being court ordered --despite their fear, resistance, outcries --to spend time with a parent they are afraid of. In many cases they are ordered to a costly, unregulated, unsafe “reunification” camps or “treatments.” Subcontracted “transporters” come to physically take children to these camps, often directly from the courtroom where the decision is handed down. At these camps children are often threatened that if they don’t recant abuse allegations and/or “get along” with the allegedly abusive parent they could be sent to foster care, they may never again see their protective parent to whom they are bonded, or that the protective parent may go to jail. This can be terrifying and traumatic for children and it’s an abomination that family courts are still ordering children into these unregulated “treatments” without any valid support for their safety or effectiveness. VAWA Kayden’s Law restricts courts from doing this; I sincerely hope this dangerous practice ends and genuine oversight is created on behalf of vulnerable children."
I’m trying to understand the logic of a child being moved to live with a parent because it’s considered that the other parent didn’t promote contact, and the new resident parent then preventing contact with the parent the child was with originally but nothing is done about this.— Dr Adrienne Barnett (@BarnettAdrienne) October 21, 2022
Thankfully, in 2022, the United States Congress passed “The Keeping Children Safe From Family Violence Act” or “Kayden’s Law” in the Violence Against Women Act Reauthorization based on the following findings:
“A child’s risk of abuse increases after a perpetrator of intimate partner violence separates from a domestic partner, even when the perpetrator has not previously directly abused the child.”
"Judges presiding over custody cases involving allegations of child abuse, child sexual abuse, & domestic violence are rarely required to receive training on these subjects, and most States have not established standards for such training.”
“More than 75 percent of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by a family member or a person known to the child.”
“Scientifically unsound theories that treat abuse allegations of mothers as likely false attempts to undermine fathers are frequently applied in family court to minimize or deny reports of abuse of parents and children.”
“Approximately 1⁄3 of parents alleged to have committed child abuse took primary custody from the protective parent reporting the abuse, placing children at ongoing risk.”
“With respect to cases in which an allegedly abusive parent claimed the mother ‘‘alienated’’ the child, courts believed only 1 in 51.”
“Empirical research indicates that courts regularly discount allegations of child physical and sexual abuse when those allegations are raised in child custody cases.”
“Many experts who testify against abuse allegations lack expertise in the relevant type of alleged abuse, relying instead on unsound and unproven theories.”
“Child abuse is a major public health issue in the United States.”
“Total lifetime financial costs with just 1 year of confirmed cases of child maltreatment, including child physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect, result in $124,000,000,000 in annual costs to the economy of the United States.”
1. Restricting expert testimony to only those who are appropriately qualified to provide it. Evidence from court-appointed or outside professionals regarding alleged abuse may be admitted only when the professional possesses demonstrated expertise and experience in working with victims of domestic violence or child abuse, including child sexual abuse.
2. Limiting the use of reunification camps and therapies which cannot be proven to be safe and effective.
No “reunification treatment” may be ordered by the court without scientifically valid and generally accepted proof of the safety, effectiveness and therapeutic value of the particular treatment.
3. Providing evidence-based ongoing training to judges and court personnel on family violence subject matter, including:
(i) child sexual abuse;
(ii) physical abuse;
(iii) emotional abuse;
(v) implicit and explicit bias;
(vii) long and short-term impacts of domestic violence and child abuse on children; and
(viii) victim and perpetrator behaviors.
4. Requiring that family courts consider the existence of protection from abuse orders when making custody determinations.
NFVLC leadership were the architects of Kayden's Law and are now providing the technical assistance to states working to adopt its provisions.
What do so-called, parental alienation "experts" think of Kayden's Law?
Below is an excerpt from her website outlining her opposition to Kayden's Law. In September 2022, Lynn Steinberg also issued her own press release celebrating the defeat of Piquis Law (SB 616) in California, which drew parts of Kayden's Law, but was incomplete.
It is interesting that she explicitly agrees in that post that "parental alienation" is almost always invoked by the fathers against the mothers. Her post will be relevant to the HRC report in 2023 in more than one way. we will issue the call for input really soon— Reem Alsalem UNSR Violence Against Women and Girls (@UNSRVAW) October 24, 2022
This was a direct statement from the California Judicial Council's Conclusions and Recommendations in 1996:
"Perhaps the greatest need documented by this chapter was the need for greater education. The committee recommended that judges, prosecutors, law enforcement, and other personnel involved in the legal system be educated on domestic-violence issues, so they understand that domestic-violence victims are often terrified to speak up against their abusers and may be reluctant to pursue court intervention once the immediate threat of violence has passed. Because domestic violence is a crime against society, as well as an injury to the individual victim, the committee concluded that the judicial system needs to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and its responsibility for effective response so that the cycle of domestic violence may, at last, be ended." (Judicial Council of CaliforniaAdvisory Committee on Gender Bias in the Courts, Page 12) This report is currently on the California Courts court.ca.gov website.
What side of history will you be on?
In closing, protection is not alienation. It's love and care.
"In years to come, this will be the ‘hidden’ tragedy of our times." - Kimberley Wall, MSc, MEd’ @DonDeLamour | Inspired by the Harm Report @womensaid— custodypeace (@custodypeace) October 25, 2022
... and we know this is also evidenced by @UN_Women @profjoanmeier @nfvlcgwu @DOJPH @congressdotgov #pivottotheperpertrator pic.twitter.com/T2JnzhsESS
"This country doesn't recognize what a serious #domesticviolence & child abuse problem it really has... Once you are exposed to this system whoever you are & you realize how unbelievably broken it is you have to do something."-#AngelinaJolie @tvkatesnow #FamilyCourtCrisis #DVAM pic.twitter.com/u0DZ2zX6XX— custodypeace (@custodypeace) October 4, 2022
Resources & Research
STUDY: Child Custody Outcomes in Cases Involving Parental Alienation and Abuse Allegations scholarship.law.gwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2712&context=faculty_publications
Danielle Pollack, Policy Manager at the National Family Violence Law Center at GW & the originator of Kaydens Law explains the dangerous outcomes that counterclaims of "parental alienation" (as a defense tactic to abuse allegations) continue to create for children/safe parents. twitter.com/safe_parents/status/1576586006710878208
Overview of Kayden's Law and how it addresses parental alienation: www.nationalsafeparents.org/take-action.html
The folks trying to get parental alienation into the DSM: www.familyaccessfightingforchildrensrights.com/monthly-webinars.html
The Facilitating System of the Family Court: grantwyeth.medium.com/the-facilitating-system-of-the-family-court-cf4ee5a3b30b
Overview of Dr. Richard Gardner's Opinions on Pedophilia and Child Sexual Abuse: www.leadershipcouncil.org/1/pas/RAG.html
Spain: UN experts denounce child custody decision that ignores evidence of sexual abuse: www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/02/spain-un-experts-denounce-child-custody-decision-ignores-evidence-sexual
Intimate partner violence against women is an essential factor in the determination of child custody, say women’s rights experts: www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Women/SR/StatementVAW_Custody.pdf
They will use the systems intended to protect you, to control you. This article examines Post Separation Abuse, Coercive Control, the abusive tactic of parental alienation counterclaims and the Family Court System. Written with contribution and advisement from Dr. Christine Marie Cocchiola, Doctor of Clinical Social Welfare, Coercive Control Educator/Researcher, and Dr. Emma Katz, Global Coercive Control Expert and Author of “Coercive Control in Children’s and Mothers’ Lives”. custodypeace.medium.com/they-will-use-the-systems-intended-to-protect-you-to-control-you-c94670c6acdb
It is not up for debate: Family Court needs to be reimagined... And Kayden's Law is the next step: This article examines the findings from U.S. Congress, the Department of Justice, the California Judicial Council, the United Nations, and countless other researchers, along with the consistent underlying factors that cause the outcomes to be the same, regardless of the decade or the location of the courtroom. custodypeace.medium.com/it-is-not-up-for-debate-family-court-needs-to-be-reimagined-just-ask-u-s-12373b25c7d9
PANELISTS include: Joan Meier (Moderator), Founder & Director, National Family Violence Law Center - Maralee McLean, Author, Speaker, Child Advocate, Domestic Violence Expert - Richard Ducote, Domestic Violence & Child Abuse Litigator, Law Reformer - Annie Kenny, Mother, Child Safety Advocate - Suzanne Chester, Managing Attorney, The Child's Advocate Legal Aid of North Carolina