Parental Alienation and Domestic Violence: What Gets Lost in the Fog?

Randy Flood

Since the term parental alienation appeared, countless articles have described the phenomenon of battered women loosing custody of their children when their batterer defended with parental alienation.  Domestic violence advocates and some Family Court Councils state it is “junk science” and is a “cancer in the family courts”. Yet the reality is more complex.

What is Parental Alienation?

Parental alienation occurs when children reject a relationship with a parent for unfounded reasons. The tragic feature of this rejection is that relational distance isn’t created by the parent-child experiential relationship, but instead created by the vindictive alienating parent or the dynamics of a high-conflict divorce process.

In other words, children reject the alienated parent in an effort to remain attached and loyal to the alienating parent out of fear, love, or confusion. The child concludes that it’s not safe for them to love both parents. In survival mode, they must denigrate and reject one, while idealizing and supporting the other.

What Isn’t Parental Alienation?

This is fundamentally different than parent-child estrangement. Estrangement occurs when a parent lacks parental fitness leading to abusive and neglectful behaviors. As a result, children reject or withdraw from such a parent because of legitimate fears, anger and disappointment. The other parent may engage in protective parenting that can be misconstrued as parental alienation, but it isn’t — loving parents want their children with safe caregivers.

Fog of Parental Alienation and Domestic Violence

Where the Road Gets Foggy: Parental Alienation and Domestic Violence

Despite the criticism regarding the origins and applications of parental alienation, it is a well documented phenomenon in divorce cases. Peer reviewed journals such as the Family Court Review have published materials on the parental alienation and its intersection with domestic violence. The Association of Family Conciliation Courts, for example, has offered numerous trainings to help Custody and Parenting Time Evaluators differentiate Parental Alienation from Parental Estrangement. Those who work in the trenches and sit on the benches know well the blank stare of the child who refuses to go to mom or dad’s house, despite no sound evidence of poor parenting.

In cases of domestic violence, sometimes it is hard to assess the severity of domestic violence to determine the best interests of the child post-divorce. In severe cases, the batterer may continue to use the children as weapon to control their ex-spouse. They may only be interested in parenting insofar as it gains them access to their ex-lover with whom they remained obsessed. In milder cases, the domestic abuse may have manifested from a conflict-based and unhealthy relationship and once this relationship is dissolved, both parents may be capable of providing for the best interests of the children. Nonetheless, in some cases, an angry vindictive parent can use the episodes of domestic abuse as a weapon to totally deprive the other parent access to the children. They dupe the courts into thinking that this is a severe case—intractable and dangerous—when in fact it isn’t. These cases need good and thorough evaluations to discern severity and scope and the best custody and parenting time arrangement for the children.

In the same vein, domestic violence advocates experience legitimate frustration when batterers dupe the courts into thinking that they are a victim of parental alienation when they aren’t. When a person is abusive and violent to a parent in front of the children, the children become scared of that parent. And when victims finally are able to leave their abuser, the children relax into this new safe environment and resist parenting time with their abuser. And a loving parent’s support of this isn’t alienation tactics, it’s called child protection. Batterers can avoid accountability by claiming they are victims of parental alienation.

The courts are very cautious—as they should be—about putting children in harms-way. They are also invested in upholding the rights of both parents to maintain a relationship with their children after a divorce. He said, she said allegations bounce off the walls in the halls of justice. These are difficult cases and in the maelstrom advocates on both ends sometimes find themselves fighting for justice.  Consequently, in their own professional trenches of warfare, they work to disarm their foe. This is how “junk science” allegations are forwarded in cases such as this—understandable—but unacceptable in the pursuit of justice and the best interests of children.

Let’s take the mental health and criminal behavior as an example. We know about individuals who are psychotic that display poor judgment and aggressive behavior without any conscious intent to harm anyone, yet do. We try to understand how their mental illness is causing the harm to others and work to treat the origin of the problem to minimize risk to others, rather than provide only punitive time in jail for bad behavior

In the same vein as batterers using parental alienation to avoid accountability, we get angry at criminals who use the insanity defense in an attempt to absolve themselves from criminal behavior and punitive consequences. Do we denounce mental illness in an effort to hold criminals accountable, and protect the victims of crime? No, we evaluate each and every case to determine the truth.

I am dismayed by the current efforts of domestic violence advocates to denounce parental alienation as “junk science” in an effort to take away a batterer’s arsenal.  Although it is a noble cause, it isn’t professional, it isn’t judicious, and it isn’t ultimately advocating for the best interests of all children. It’s a fear based, defensive position with a bias toward erring on the side of safety and potentially unwarranted denial of parenting time. As such, denying the existence of parental alienation serves this ideological position, and it is simplifying a very complicated issue facing Family Courts.

I’ve done hundreds of custody evaluations as well as worked with hundreds of batterers. And each situation had its own set of nuances:

  • I’ve seen batterers obsessively pursue control over their partners and use the alienation of their children as an extension of that control over their ex-partner.
  • I’ve seen angry, vindictive parents who act out their abandonment rage systematically by alienating their children from a parent with no history of poor parenting.
  • And I’ve seen cases that are dynamic. One parent has a history of problems such as substance abuse, poor parenting, or abusive behavior toward their partner and then experiences a “wake up call” and begins a legitimate path to recovery. Nonetheless, the other parent is understandably traumatized from the past and remains wounded, fearful, and untrusting.  This wounded parent begins acting this out with parental alienation tactics. (When this happens, the courts needs to afford the traumatized parent treatment not collude with their protracted trauma response while also remaining vigilant in holding the recovering parent accountable.)

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What’s Lost in the Fog: The Best Interest of All Children

The real “cancer” in Family Courts is unwavering advocacy of a rigid ideology interfacing with a litigious process that promotes bi-polar thinking of winners and losers: Is it domestic violence or parental alienation?  This type of thinking leads to: “if batterers use parental alienation effectively as a defense to win custody, then we should consider parental alienation junk science and eradicate its use in court”.  Family Courts and the best interests of the children are served when evaluators develop multiple hypotheses rather than proceed with a confirmatory bias in these complicated cases—let the data confirm conclusions, not an ideological bias.

This is fear based, ideologically based, and it will not forward the best interests of ALL children. We need to train professionals, including judges, on the intersection of domestic violence and parental alienation.  Then we need to evaluate and process each family case by case.

Batterers are masters of obfuscation. They will bend, twist, and shade facts to avoid accountability and shift blame.  Accordingly, parental alienation becomes a high powered weapon for them in courts.  It’s understandable why some of us in this work get scared, angry, and reflexively seek to remove “the weapon” from society.  If a loved one gets shot and killed by a criminal with an unregistered gun, we may wish to rid society of guns to feel safer. Yet a more judicious and less emotionally reflexive response would be to work on gun law polices to get guns out of the hands of criminals and only into the hands of responsible citizens.

We need to continue to study, research, and evaluate parental alienation, rather than throw it out. The more we learn about how vindictive parents can effectively alienate children from a good and loving parent, the more we can actually protect parents from parental alienation by a batterer.  Let’s step together to pursue justice with courage, rather than ideology with fear.

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Randy Flood, MA, LLP

Evaluator and Therapist; Director and Therapist, Men’s Resource Center of West Michigan. Randy has been involved in counseling psychology since 1992 and joined the Fountain Hill Center in 2000. He believes sitting with individuals 1:1 and in groups while they share their pain, joy, fears and passions is a privilege. He believes it is soul work: the process of taking off the social mask and placing oneself deeper into vulnerability takes courage, the journey of leaving the security of the familiar patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving to seeking new ways of living.
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