How Parental Alienation Affects the Legal Process
First and foremost, if you were searching for information about Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), it is likely that you may be personally concerned about these issues in your own family life. If so, it is vitally important for you to realize that the specific issues which appear in alienation cases are very different than those issues which arise in a divorce, even a contentious one, when alienation is not an issue. Below are a few examples which may help illustrate these differences.
It is well understood that visitation interference is a central theme in alienation cases, as are false allegations of abuse. If one’s attorney is not familiar with this, it becomes very likely that improper advice may be given, such as: “not making waves,” that the “kids will come around,” and “not to make an issue of a little bit of visitation being missed.” If alienation was not present in an ongoing divorce, this advice would very likely be appropriate. However, if alienation is afoot, such advice could likely begin an avalanche of loss in the parent/child relationship during and after divorce. Otherwise competent and experienced attorneys who are unfamiliar with PAS may make this error in advice and unwittingly enable such loss.
In the context of high-conflict divorce where alienation is present, it is well understood that false allegations of abuse against the Targeted Parent abound as a strategy to gain advantage in the custody dispute. If an attorney not intimately familiar with alienation is representing a client who has been wrongly accused of being abusive to his or her child, the attorney might recommend that the client agree to an Anger Management Course as a way to placate the other side and to convey to the court that the client is being responsible. Such advice is commonly given even though the client in question does not have an anger management problem. Similarly, the same advice may also be given as a means for the client to have supervised visitation, rather than have visitation revoked entirely. This scenario illustrates how if alienation was not present in a case, such advice could be sound under certain circumstances. However, if alienation is present, this advice could stigmatize that parent as an angry and difficult parent in the perception of the court when this is not the case and thus cause further injury to the parent/child relationship. Furthermore, such advice, perhaps resulting unnecessarily in supervised visitation, would likely send a message to the child that this parent is “scary” or inferior to the other parent. Why else would Mom or Dad need a supervisor? In other words, such advice would ironically act in service of rather than in resolution of the alienation.
To further illustrate the point, imagine that the court has ordered a Custody Evaluation or therapy for an alienated child. If a therapist, who is unfamiliar with alienation, were to be appointed, it is likely that they would take a position of support toward the child’s resistance to seeing the Target Parent and essentially treat that child as if he/she were the victim of domestic violence when that was never the case. Likewise, an Evaluator who is unfamiliar with alienation and PAS, would very likely take the child’s complaints about the Target Parent at face-value without ruling out bona fide abuse and negative parental behavior. Such an evaluation would yield recommendations supporting and even encouraging the alienation.
Finally, it is important to understand that dealing with alienation and PAS in divorce are very specialized areas, in both the legal and the mental health arenas. Therefore, it is vitally important to understand that these competencies should not be assumed in the selection of an attorney or mental health professional. Direct involvement in the training of both attorneys and mental health professionals regarding PAS, has created an acute sensitivity to the issues of professional awareness and professional competence concerning alienation in the context of divorce. If anything, one should assume that most attorneys and most mental health professionals are not familiar with parental alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). This is a much safer operating assumption that the reverse. As a consequence of this state of affairs, consulting services to parents, their attorneys, and to mental health professionals has become the primary focus of my work regarding Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome.
Why do PAS cases require specialization?
While most mental health professionals who work in the area of divorce would describe some familiarity with Parental Alienation and Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), it is important to understand that this is a very specialized field and requires different evaluative techniques and tools than if Parental Alienation (PA) were not present. If the evaluator is not intimately familiar with the nuances of this phenomenon, it is likely that this condition will be misdiagnosed and mistreated. This need for understanding exactly how and why PA and PAS occur is also necessary for other professionals in order to deal with PA and PAS properly.
Welcome to Family Court
The Family Court System is a very specific environment whose true rules of operation are unstated and are, in fact, quite contrary to those which are stated. For example, one often hears the remark that you can or cannot “prove” parental alienation in court, as if this question was critical to being successful in court with parental alienation. In actual fact, the ability or inability to “prove” the presence of parental alienation in a specific family case is very much secondary to the issue of getting the court to “believe” that parental alienation is present. What we very often find is that what one can or cannot prove in family court is quite different than what one can get a very human Judge to “believe.” The rules of evidence and the evidence code do more or less rule the issue of proof, but the subjective impact of causing the audience (the Judge) to believe your story is more the province of emotion, presentation, and even theater. These are, in fact, the principles – emotion, presentation, and theatrics - that predict outcome in Family Law cases where parental alienation is present. Not the law.
Perhaps surprisingly, competent Family Law attorneys very often do not understand this. They believe that outcome is predicted by the “rules” and the application of the law to the facts of the case. If this, in fact, should be so in a given case, it is due to the fact that the legal case happened to agree with the emotional presentation that successfully made the Judge “a believer.” We see over and over that when these two levels disagree – that is when the legalistic level disagrees with the emotionally related “story” - that the subjective emotional level trumps the legal one. Family Law cases involving parental alienation provide abundant example of this. Oddly, the lawyers are often as surprised by unwanted outcome as are their clients. Sadly familiar examples abound. Visitation between parent and child are regularly interrupted when doing so is completely at variance with the conditions that are to be met by the law. Orders of Protection are routinely given when there is no evidence of threat or event a hint at one. Custody is often changed when the burden of “change of circumstance” has been in no way met or even addressed. Visitation Orders are ignored by the very court that issued them for no legal reason whatsoever. False abuse allegations are rarely if ever prosecuted in spite of statutory language that requires prosecution. The list goes on.
The significant fact here is that these anomalies are not anomalies at all. They are the predictable outcome of a “sub- logic” that exists beneath the level of the law, has nothing to do with the law, and is often at odds with the law. Welcome to Family Court.