PAS: Child Abuse Case Seminar - Parentally Alienated Children Treatment - Part 1 - Dr. Michael Bone
WHY ALIENATION CASES GO SIDEWAYS IN COURT
Family Law cases where parental alienation is present are difficult and the court often gets them wrong. There are several reasons for this, and having an understanding of them should be able to help to manage them.
There are two systemic reasons. The first is that the Family Law court always favors the status quo. That is why, in modification hearings, one must show a “substantial change of circumstance” in order to get the court to make a change. When alienation is present and a child is alienated, that child’s resistance to seeing that parent is essentially part of the status quo. The reasons for the resistance is another matter, but the child not wanting to see a parent, for whatever reason, is the state of affairs that is brought to the court.
The second systematic reason is that the Family Court system is biased - properly so towards the protection of children from danger. The purpose of this bias is very understandable as children definitely need to be protected from danger and abuse. The problem is, when parental alienation is present, this bias is manipulated and exploited. When targeted or unfavored parents are falsely accused of wrongdoing as an explanation for why the child does not want to see the parent, the court is obligated to “err on the side of caution” to make certain that the child is not being abused and is safe.
These two reasons are built into the system and must be appreciated and then overcome. The most reliable way to do this is though the presentation of massive and overwhelming evidence that, (1) the status quo is the environment where the child is being psychologically abused, and (2) that the child is actually living in an environment with the alienating or favored parent that warrants protection for the child. Getting these two points across unavoidably requires expert testimony to educate the court accordingly. One of the biggest mistakes made at this point is to not provide adequate massive and overwhelming evidence. Attorneys will sometimes say that the Judge has “heard enough” and that further testimony is not needed. In my experience, this failure to “connect the dots” for the Court, assuming that it is clear, is one of the most common mistakes made by otherwise competent family lawyers. The points must be made, made again and then made again via fact witness testimony as well as expert testimony. The specifics of how this is done is beyond the scope of this handbook, however the important point to take away is that this cannot be “over done.”
This leads me to the next problem, which is not systemic to the Family Court, but is systemic to the phenomenon of parental alienation. The problem I am referring to is that the phenomenon of parental alienation is, in its nature, counter-intuitive. The alienated child, after all, looks very close to the alienating or favored parent. The alienating parent often presents as being in control, concerned and protective of the child. The targeted or unfavored parent, who has typically been falsely portrayed as being unstable, unsafe or even dangerous, has been traumatized by not only the loss of their children, but also by the betrayal of the system that is supposed to see the truth and protect their children. They have been doubly traumatized, and they often look it. They may come across as overly emotional and angry, which then plays into the alienating parent’s false portrayal of them.
The solution to this counter-intuitive bias is massive and overwhelming evidence that is designed to educate the court, both with expert opinion, but also with carefully scripted fact witness testimony that comports with the expert testimony. This combination of fact witness testimony, in concert with expert testimony that basically explains it, is the combination most likely to open the court’s eyes as to what is actually occurring.
This leads me to the final point. That is, the alienating parent must be exposed as being the alienating parent. Their behavior must be revealed and their distortions and lies must be exposed. The most common error made in this respect is that the alienating parent is not attacked in this manner. Instead, the targeted parent defends them self only. In my opinion, without successful exposure of the behavior and character of the alienating parent, the court is unlikely to get it right and order a remedy that will actually work.
Access and Visitation Blocking: The First Ingredient of Parental Alienation
This is the first of four parts regarding the four criteria which are present in cases were Parental Alienation is present. These summaries are derived from an article that was published in the Florida Bar Journal in 1999. Since that time, we have
learned quite a bit, and it seemed fitting to update those original thoughts. The first criterion that inhabits virtually all parental alienation cases is Access and Visitation Blocking. I believe the most important thing to understand about this criterion is that it occupies a vast continuum os possibilities. On the most extreme end would be the overt and purposeful blocking of access to one’s children by what will end up being the alienating parent. This extreme and unsubtle version of this criterion would be that alienating parent refusing to deliver or produce the children when the allotted access time occurs. Perhaps surprisingly, this extreme expression of this kind of access blocking is more the exception than the rule, since it is easy to spot and confront. If a court order states that child A will be delivered to the non-custodial parent on say Friday at 3:00 PM, and the child is not delivered and no warning or reason is given, that alienating and offending parent is placing them self in a position to be chastised by the court. While this does occur on occasion, it is my experience that it is rather rare. Most alienating parents are more savvy than this. We must be reminded that the Family Law system throughout the land is biased towards the protection of children, which it should be. Children should and must be shielded from abuse and danger. It is important to understand that this default setting of protection does in fact constitute a bias. What this means is that even the most subtle suggestion that a child would be better off not seeing that (targeted) parent tends to be absorbed by this bias. The legal phrase “out of an abundance of caution” is often heard during these moments. In other words, out of caution for making certain that the child in question is not in danger, the access time might well be at least postponed, if not cancelled all together, due to this bias. However, as we know in the case of parental alienation, it is precisely this bias that is manipulated and exploited. In other words, even when there is no articulated (false) allegation as to why a child should not see that other parent, the bias to protect that child from danger very often jumps into the thinking of the court, which causes the court to rarely act quickly and decisively to confront a violation of its own order. Therefore we more often than not find that the access and visitation blocking represented by this criterion - implicitly clothed in some suggestion that the child is better off not having their contact time with that parent - passes muster with the court. “There must be some reason this child did not want to see that parent” is a phrase that hovers over these incidents, which causes the court to “lean back” out of caution, rather than “lean forward” in a confrontational posture. This caution and hesitation is the very ghost of this bias to protect. It simply is the default setting, so much so that little reason must be given as to why the court’s order was not followed. I stress this point so much here because I believe that the bias to protect - again, legitimate and necessary as it is - constitutes a powerful undertow that can easily wash a parent’s time with their child out to sea, so to speak. Therefore, the alienating parents task is easy. Even the hint or suggestion of displeasure or danger tips the bias over the edge. And it is this pietre dish of bias to protect, where the bacterium of alienation can grow both quickly and easily. The alienating parent’s task is easy. The playing field is not level. It is slanted in favor of the alienating parent when alienation is present. We must simply recognize this if it is to be overcome. So what forms of this access and visitation blocking might we see? The most extreme and unsubtle is noted above, but the more subtle yet still impacting must also be identified. In today’s hyper communicative environment, replete with social media, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, email and telephone, all of these media are subject to the expression of this criterion. When it comes to social media, we might find that a parent is “unfriended” or perhaps an alternate identify is created for purposes of cutting off communication with that parent. In the case of the other digital media, we see alternate email addresses being created, and alternate cell phone accounts being opened. In the case of telephonic communication, we might see telephone calls not being returned or voicemail messages not being played. Ironically perhaps, since we now have so many more communicative media available, they all represent opportunities to show to the court the presence of this criterion. I therefore make the strong recommendation that logs of calls, messages and all other data exposing this criterion be created and maintained. While it is unrealistic to expect that any trier of fact (Judge) is going to listen to many or any of these messages, the effect of having abundant documentation that carries the theme of access and visitation blocking, is significant. Moving down the scale of subtly, one of the more common expressions of this criterion is that of the alienating parent scheduling a child for activities that occupy the time that the child is to see the targeted parent. This has the familiar theme of thereby causing the targeted parent to be in a quandary as to what to do. Should he or she insist on disallowing the child to participate in the activity in favor of contact, or should he or she alter their activities to attend the activity with the child, or should he or she simply allow the activity to occur and forgo contact? There are no pat answers to these questions as each set of circumstances must be assessed and weighed individually. However what is clear is that this quandary as to what to do may be presented to the court as having been created by the actions of the alienating parent. The alienating parent must be shown to be the puppeteer who manipulates the child to be in the middle, and to act as their agent, and examples of using activities to block access can be a fertile ground to make this argument. In my experience, when the court begins to understand the pattern of one (alienating) parent setting up circumstance after circumstance wherein this quandary occurs, the court begins to rule in a more
productive direction. Until that is made clear however, the court most often fails to act in a curative direction, if it acts at all. As with my other posts, I invite comment and suggestion. I hope that this discussion helps.
False Allegations of Abuse: The Second Ingredient of Parental Alienation
This is the second in a series of four parts devoted to the four criteria that are found in parental alienation cases. As a reference point to this, I would remind the reader that this series of posts is related to an article authored by myself and a Florida Attorney, Michael Walsh. The original purpose of the article was to provide Family Law attorneys with a kind of template as to what to look for in these cases. It was written in such a way that one could potentially review the file and make a fairly good speculative guess as to the presence or absence of parental alienation. I made the point in that article that some or even three of these criteria could be found in high conflict cases of divorce and post divorce, and still not be parental alienation. My point was that, in my opinion, all four must be present for there to be parental alienation. Even though this article was written from a qualitative point of view rather than from a quantitative perspective, I still believe that it is accurate. I have yet to see a parental alienation case without all four being present. That is the back story. The subject of this post is the second of these criteria, which is False Allegations of Abuse. As with the first criterion, this one also has a wide range of expressions. On the most extreme and unsubtle end is the frank but false accusation that a parent has abused a child physically, emotionally and even sexually, when no such abuse occurred. This is perhaps the most heinous expression of this criterion. In these cases, various agencies will typically become involved wherein an “investigation” will occur. I put this word in quotations due to the fact that these investigations also have a very wide range of quality and expression. I have seen very good and thorough investigations having been completed where the agency charged with protecting the child from danger actually becomes a voice to expose the alienation. In these cases, the investigator actively accesses the accusing party in terms of their credibility, obviously recognizing that false child abuse accusations do occur within the divorce context. Any seasoned agency investigator will quickly point this out, and as a result, will be open to the possibility that the accusation might be false and motivated by the hope of a tactical advantage in the divorce process. That said, the investigator actively and thoroughly considers as an equal possibility, that the abuse did in fact occur. In pursuit of this, the investigator will
question the alleged victim, the alleged perpetrator and as many collateral sources as the fact pattern might warrant. As with any investigation or evaluative process, the goal is to develop multiple hypotheses about whatever is being investigated and then to apply the data to these various hypotheses and see which comes closest to matching. To properly investigate any allegation of harm to a child (or to an adult) requires thorough and painstaking work, which cannot be accomplished with a single visit or videotaped interview. Here is where we come to the problem. The above model of a competent and thorough evaluation, while vitally important, is an extreme rarity. More often than not, the alleged victim, the child is interviewed perhaps once, often at a school, or perhaps at the parent’s home, and some sort of report is filed based primarily, if not exclusively on the comments of the alleged victim and his or her reporting parent. Very often, the alleged perpetrator, in the case of parental alienation, the other parent, is not even contacted. I have heard countless descriptions by parents who learn after the fact that such an investigation even occurred. Equally, when this is somehow stumbled upon, I have heard countless descriptions of that parent trying to meet with the investigating agency, to learn about what they are being accused of, only to be turned away. The sad state of affairs, in many of our state run agencies charged with the protection children, is that if a child even suggested that some adverse event occurred that it simply must be true. This perspective is perhaps three decades old and the belief that children do not lie about such things is no longer subscribed to by any researcher in the field. Just to be clear: a child making an accusation may be telling the truth, or they may not be. Thepossibility that the accusation might be false is supported by a great deal of research. This does not mean that, especially in the context of divorce and post divorce, that all such accusations should be considered as being false, only that this should be considered. In 1995, a research psychologist at Cornell University, Steven, Ceci, PhD published a book entitled Jeopard in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony. If any of you are not familiar with this book and have an interest in such things, I would highly recommend it. In it Ceci describes all of the many an myriad ways that children’s statements, testimony and such like are so easily influenced. They are very easily influenced, and therefore any interview that can be used as evidence must be done in a painstaking and delicate manner. I am sure that it comes as no surprise to this readership that these interviews, even nearly two decades after the publication of this book, are not done carefully at all. I have reviewed countless such videotaped interviews and have been shocked by their tone- deaf quality and their unsubtle violation of the rules of such interviews. Sadly however, this is the state of things. This extreme end of the spectrum of this criterion is well known to this readership and makes up many of the nightmarish tragedies of wrongly accused parents being removed from their children. There is a great deal of information and countless examples of this, and I fear that I cannot add much further to an understanding of this in this post. Suffice it to say, the injustice of such tragedies is immense and beyond words, and parents and children who have suffered this deserve our unending support and compassion. These are true tragedies. However, as we move down the spectrum of the expression of this criterion however, we find more subtle but still potent examples of it. These examples are the broad
category where a parent is portrayed as anything from incompetent, to disinterested, to selfish, to unstable, to potentially dangerous, to “not to be trusted”. These messages, we should be reminded are messages that the alienating parent sends out to virtually anyone who will listen, in their effort to vilify the targeted parent to the world at large.
While we know that this is the target audience of these alienating parents, the most significant subset of the audience is, of course the children, who are absorbing the poison regarding their now largely marginalized or absent other parent, with whom they once had a loving relationship. When one considers the role of this criteria, coupled with the first one - Access and Visitation Blocking - it is clear that this second criterion operates as a justification for the first one. As has been noted, given the court’s sensitivity towards the protection of children, it should not be surprising to see that the function of this criterion is to provide a reason for the court to err of the side of caution. Put simply, it is not at all difficult to get a Family Law Judge to pause “out of an abundance of caution” in re-uniting a child and a parent who has, in all likelihood, been falsely accused of some form of abuse. The bar is simply not set that high. Put another way, the deck is stacked against the falsely accused parent. This is perhaps unavoidable, but such bias should be met with active investigation, which it very often is not. Such accusations should be equally tested for legitimacy just as the real danger to a child should be judged. Very often, only the second half of that equation is accomplished. This is, of course, a tragedy of our times, but one that can be gradually remedied through education. My hope is that these discussions can help in that process. As always, I invite your comments, and hope that this is helpful to your situation.
Deterioration in the Parent Child Relationship: The Third Ingredient of Parental Alienation
This is the third in a series of four parts devoted to the four behavioral criteria that are all present in cases of parental alienation. These criteria were first described in an article authored by myself and family attorney, Michael Walsh. The article was first published in the Florida Bar Journal and then was republished as the lead article in the Minnesota Bar Journal. I am told that it also found its way into a Supreme Court ruling in Israel regarding parental alienation. I think the interest in this is related to the difficulty in identifying if parental alienation is going on or if it is not. To this very day, when I am contacted by a parent or attorney about a case where parental alienation is believed to be present, I still rely on these four criteria to satisfy myself that such imay likely be the case. While the template that these criteria is not foolproof, it is at least some sort of reasonably and reliable measure to assist in the ruling in or ruling out of its presence. But enough backstory. The subject of today’s post is the third criteria, which deterioration in the relationship between the targeted parent and the child(ren). In many ways, this criterion is the result of the first two. That is, when a child is kept from a parent and is done so for illegitimate reasons, and these reasons are conveyed to the child (which they virtually always are) the relationship between that child and that now absent parent begins to deteriorate. Perhaps breaking this down a bit can make this more understandable. When a parent is less physically present in a child’s day to day reality, that child’s view of that parent is more vulnerable to distortion. When children maintain regular contact with each parent, it is this concrete face to face interaction that maintains and supports that child’s true view of that parent, as it as developed via that child’s interactions with that parent, as fed through the child’s senses and recorded in memory. This is not true just for children, but for adults as well. For example, if I have a friend with whom I have had a good and ongoing relationship, and I am told negative and alarming things about this friend, it is primarily the ongoing contact with this friend that will allow me to maintain more objectivity concerning the various negative things I am being told. I will be better able to critique these accusations for myself to decide if they have merit. If however, that friend, say suddenly moves away and I loose contact and I am told these same negative and alarming things, absent contact with that friend, I am more prone, over time, to give these allegations more weight. Of course, I am speaking in the most general terms. The closeness of the friendship and the quality and quantity of the time spent together will tend to mitigate and make less believable these negative things being told. For example, a combat soldier who served in a forward post with a fellow combat soldier with whom they trusted and relied for their very lives, this sort of situation would be less vulnerable to such distortion. But consider, even if the fellow combat soldiers who relied on each other for their lives was told by a trusted authority that the soldier with whom they had been close, was actually say a pedophile, even the close bonds formed in combat might be vulnerable. Now let us turn our attention to the child who has had a close and loving relationship with a parent whom they no longer see. And let us further assume that the child is told that the reason that the parent is gone is that they simply do not want to be with the child, such information would be quite hurtful and damaging in and of itself. Now let us assume that this same child is told that the absent parent who suddenly appeared to not want to see them any more was actually a dangerous and violent person and that the child had been fooled into thinking otherwise, and that this same parent was actually a sly and deceitful manipulator. Absent contact with that parent, even the most bonded child to this parent will begin to wonder and harbor suspicions. The phenomenon of “confirmatory bias” comes into play here. Due primarily to the way we are wired neurologically, when we hear disturbing things about someone that we may even know well, the phenomenon of confirmatory bias tends to cause us to give weight to these disturbing things if that person’s behavior in any way endorses what we have been told. Suppose that you are told that a close co-worker secretly had a serious psychiatric disorder that caused them to become violent. Further, let us suppose that while we have never seen any evidence of any such behavior from the co-worker over the span of many years, this co-worker learns that he has just been robbed blind by a trusted business partner, and that due to this, he might well find himself homeless. As the co-worker describes and expresses his understandable anger at the deceitful business partner, we find ourselves wondering if the psychiatric disorder might be really what is going on. Maybe there never was a business partner. Perhaps all of this is delusional. The fact of the matter is that before we were exposed to this information about the alleged psychiatric history of the co- worker, we would never have considered these possibilities. The point is, once we are exposed to these alternate interpretations, we find it very hard to ignore them. We may end up not giving them much weight, but they will occupy some space in our thoughts. This is especially true if we do not understand our vulnerability to bias. We are simply built that way. While we humans do not like to think of ourselves in this way, we really do tend to be herd animals. We tend to be very influenced by our environment and this is especially true with children. Therefore, under the weight of the first two criteria (1) access and visitation blocking and (2) false abuse allegations justifying the lack of access, virtually any parent- child relationship will tend to deteriorate. The level of deterioration will be related to the temperament of the child, the child’s developmental stage, the depth and closeness of the now absent (targeted) parent relationship and its history, as well as the the duration of the absence, and the degree of vilification to which the child has been exposed. The good news within all of this is that our ability to become “biased” towards the truth also remains and can be potentially resurrected. Consequently, even severely alienated children, when exposed over time to the
targeted parent for whom they once expressed fear and hatred, can recover and reclaim their true selves. Granted there are case where this does not happen, however it is hoped that the more one understands how neurologically vulnerable we inherently are to the tricks of alienation, the more we can manage them. I hope this is of some help, and as always please send any thoughts you may have about this. Thank you.
Persuasive Rhetoric: The Tool of Choice for the Alienating Parent
Persuasive Rhetoric refers to using language in an emotionally laden manner with the purpose of convincing the audience of some particular perspective. Persuasive Rhetoric is a tool for selling ideas, beliefs and positions on a given topic or subject. It is unrelated to truth. It only refers to the spin, the story and the goal of winning over the audience. Nothing in the message requires truth.
In the case of Parental Alienation, this concept is useful in that it describes a favorite modus operandi that the alienating parent uses to vilify the targeted parent. In this context, the alienating parent will allege something either entirely untrue or grossly distorted regarding the targeted parent. It is done with such emotion and tenacity, that the audience is typically drawn into its message. Then the alienating parent does the same thing with another listener. Now there is a group of three who all believe the same either untrue or grossly distorted thing. There are now three voices in this chorus, and the intensity level tends to increase with the volume and the numbers of those involved. Then someone in this group of three relates this to another person, who questions it but is told that several other people told them the same thing, so it must be true. This new "convert" to the distortion then unwittingly spreads the distortion to someone else, and to someone else, and to someone else.
Rightly or wrongly, we humans do tend to be herd animals. Due to our wiring and our evolution, when the herd is exposed to some message that is potentially dangerous or at least negative, we do tend to give it extra weight, and then pass it on. This is a self protective reflex that is easily exploited by the alienating parent in their mission to obliterate the targeted parent.
Socrates, the story goes, is approached by a man who wants to tell him some urgent news. Before he does this, Socrates stops him and says he would first like to ask him three questions before he tells his story. The man agrees. The first question is, "do you know the person to whom this news occurred?" Answer: "No, but I know someone who does know them. " Question two: "did you witness the event yourself?" Answer: "No, but I spoke to someone who was there." Question Three: " Is the news good or bad?" Answer: "It would be considered bad news." Socrates reviews accordingly, "You do not know the person to whom this happened, you only heard about it from someone who says they were there, and it is bad news. Thank you, but I think I would rather not listen to this news."
Fear Reaction to Displeasing the Alienating Parent: The Fourth Ingredient of Parental Alienation
This is the fourth in a four part series devoted to discussion of the four criteria found in cases where parental alienation is present. As a reminder, these posts are based on an article written on this subject several years ago. The particular posts is based on what I have described as a Fear Reaction on the part of the Alienated Child to Displeasing the Alienating Parent. Of the four criteria, this one is the most psychologically based one. That is, the first one was mostly behavioral, the second one was mostly strategic and the third one was psychological and the result of the first two. This criteria is really the engine that runs the entire dynamic of parental alienation. It is focused and located within the relationship between the alienating parent and the alienated child. In various places in his writings, Richard Gardner, MD, stated that the entire parental alienation dynamic was “fear based.” What he meant - and the basis of this criterion - is basically that the alienated child is driven to the distorted behavior that we describe as “alienated” due to a fear of displeasing the alienating parent. We must keep in mind that very often, if not always, these alienated children have essentially already lost one parent through access and visitation blocking (Criterion One), and false abuse allegations against the targeted parent (Criterion Two), which results in the denigration of that child’s relationship with their once loved parent (Criterion Three). This tremendous loss then fuels that child’s dependence on their only remaining parent, the alienating one. This makes them cling desperately to that parent. Very often, we will hear of instances where an alienated child is acting out some claim that they do not want to see the targeted parent, and are becoming agitated and upset in making this claim. Within this context, if the child truly did not want to see that other parent for legitimate reasons, that the remaining parent would have no reason to express anger at the child. However, in cases of parental alienation, we often get a glimpse of that alienating parent flash a momentary angry glance at the child, as if to say, “you had better convince anyone watching that you do not want to go, or else.” Then that parent will resume the posture of shoulder shrugging and puzzlement as if to say, “I do not know why they won’t go. I wish that they would.” This brief flash of anger is often not clearly seen, as it is brief, subtle and transitory, however it is well understood by the alienated child. Years ago, when this article was written, this criterion was described primarily as being fear based, which I believe that it still very much is. However, since then, I have also become aware that, while at its core it is still very much fear based, that it can also wear a mask of protectiveness. That is, we also see this criterion expressed as the alienating child being put in a position to have to take care of the alienating parent on an emotional basis. When this is present, the child is held hostage not only by a fear of abandonment from displeasing the alienating parent, but also by a feeling of guilt if they do not take care of them emotionally. These two emotional states, fear and guilt are essentially two sides of the same coin of enmeshment. The enmeshed relationship that is known to exist between the alienating parent and the child, is the wellspring that produces both of these emotional burdens for the child. When we recall that the nature of good and healthy parenting is to produce children who are self reliant and independent, we can clearly see that its opposite is that of the alienating parent, who generates messages to their alienated children that it is their job to not be their own person, but rather to be the person that the alienating parent wants them to be. As we see over and over again, these children are actually penalized, punished and abandoned if they become independent and think for and take care of themselves. I have read many a mis-guided and ill informed custody evaluation where the seriously enmeshed relationship between the alienated child and the alienating parent is described as being “very close” implying that this kind of closeness is healthy. In actuality, this kind of enmeshed “closeness” is far from healthy and is actually stunting and crippling, anything but healthy. However, if the evaluator does not know to dig into the quality of the attachment between this parent and child, this imprisoning “closeness” may appear to be simply close and healthy, when it is its opposite. That, however is the topic of another discussion. Suffice it to say, the enmeshed relationship that is insisted upon by the alienating parent, maintained by fear and/or guilt, serves to keep the child under the control of the alienating parent, much like the puppeteer is to the puppet. These strings of fear and guilt actually hold the child back from being who they can be. This is the greatest tragedy of
parental alienation, which is the essence of child abuse. As with prior posts, please comment on your experience with this phenomenon. I hope that this is of some help.