It’s a tale as old as time. Divorced parents bash each other in hopes of garnering favor with their child during a divorce or custody dispute. At some point the child, becomes so exposed to the bashing, blame and ill-will from one parent toward another that the child becomes disenchanted with the other parent; the relationship begins to break down, sometimes, irreparably.

25487205 - unhappy family and child custody battle concept sketched on sticky note paper
25487205 – unhappy family and child custody battle concept sketched on sticky note paper

This strategy is known as parental alienation, and is being increasingly tossed around in Court battles – sometimes by a truly harmful parent who has exploited their child for a litigation win or as some sort of perverse retribution, and sometimes, it is levied against a parent legitimately attempting to protect their child from abuse or neglect.

However, in cases of true alienation, it is clear that it is injurious to all involved. University of Texas psychologist Richard Warshak, author of Divorce Poison: Protecting the Parent-Child Bond from a Vindictive Ex explains that it’s typically the emotionally healthier parent that is rejected, whereas the alienating parent thinks it acceptable to use the child as a form of punishment for the other parent. Warshak characterized it as a form of abuse toward both parent and child.

Still, as Eric Solotoff blogged in late 2012, the American Psychiatric Association board of trustees will still not go so far as to characterize Parental Alienation Syndrome as a mental illness in the DSM 5 (released in May 2013).

Yet, given the grave effects of parental alienation on both parent and child, it is no surprise that Courts are taking aggressive steps to try to restore the parent-child bond. Experts advise that alienation requires an order from a Court to allow a manipulated child time to bond with the alienated parent.

Sometimes, this will mean reunification therapy for the child and alienated parent, perhaps beginning once a week, and then gradually increasing. The therapist may ultimately place the child and parent in a “real-life” situation, like having the therapy occur in a diner, or at the park. Eventually, the parent may have parenting time alone with the child for an increasing amount of time as the relationship progresses.

For more extreme cases of alienation, where the child is completely past the point of even being open to conventional reunification therapy, the Court may order an intensive, immersion therapy program such as Stable Paths, which is described on its website as an “intensive therapeutic reunification intervention for families impacted by separation resulting from high-conflict divorce, parental alienation, and familial abduction.”

There, the families essentially move on to a tranquil campus, and immerse themselves in therapeutic activities together, such as horseback riding, cooking, sports and games. The goal is to create new memories and re-establish existing bonds and attachments in hopes of repairing the relationship. Each family leaves with a treatment plan for reunification.

The most extreme cases, however, may warrant a complete overhaul to the custody arrangement. Judges may award primary custody of the child to the alienated parent in an effort to extract the child from a toxic situation and reestablish the bond with the other parent.

In 2012, in Milne v. Goldenberg, the Appellate Division reaffirmed the necessity of trial court judges to consider removing a child from the custody of the uncooperative parent and/or imposing temporary or permanent modification of custody. The decision reinforced the holding of New Jersey courts that interference with an ex-spouse’s parenting rights is so inimical to the welfare of the child that judges should transfer custody when the non-compliance puts parent/child relationships at risk:

[T]he necessity for at least minimal parental cooperation in a joint custody arrangement presents a thorny problem of judicial enforcement in a case such as the present one, wherein despite the trial court’s determination that joint custody is in the best interests of the child, one parent (here, the mother) nevertheless contends that cooperation is impossible and refuses to abide by the decree…However, when the actions of such a parent deprive the child of the kind of relationship with the other parent that is deemed to be in the child’s best interests, removing the child from the custody of the uncooperative parent may well be appropriate as a remedy of last resort.

The Milne court reinforces that the Rules of Court provide for a change of custody as a remedy for recalcitrant parents. R. 5:3-7(a)(6) explains that remedies for violations of custody and parenting time Orders include “temporary or permanent modification of the custodial arrangement provided such relief is in the best interest of the children.”

Turning custody on its head, although seemingly an effective remedy, may prove difficult to swallow for some judges. Even if the Court finds alienation has occurred, it may prove almost impossible to override the child’s wishes, who, by the time the Court is involved, may be a preteen absolutely refusing to have any relationship with the alienated parent.

Accordingly to Psychology Today, House Divided: Hate Thy Father, by Mark Teich, it will take a “sophisticated judge to realize what psychologists might see as obvious: Deep down, the child has never really stopped loving the other parent. He or she has just been brainwashed like a prisoner of war or a cult victim, programmed to accept destructive beliefs until critical thinking can be restored.”

The same sophistication is required when a judge is asked to identify whether a parent accused of alienation is merely attempting to protect his or her child from actual abuse by the other parent. Parental alienation seems to have taken on “buzz word” status in recent years, being used even in cases where there may be a legitimate concern for the child’s safety and wellbeing.

As it stands right now, alienation can be repaired, but it requires judges to:

(1) Differentiate real alienation from legitimate concerns about abuse or neglect;
(2) Order parents to intensive therapy programs and ensure that resulting treatment plans are complied with; and
(3) Overlook the supposed desires of an alienated child to see that he or she has never stopped loving their parent, but has just been brainwashed to accept untrue and very destructive beliefs.
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Eliana Baer, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPEliana T. Baer is a contributor to the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and a member of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Eliana practices in Fox Rothschild’s Princeton, New Jersey office and focuses her state-wide practice on representing clients on issues relating to divorce, equitable distribution, support, custody, adoption, domestic violence, premarital agreements and Appellate Practice. You can reach Eliana at (609) 895-3344, or etbaer@foxrothschild.com.

2 Responses to Can the Parent-Child Bond be Restored After Alienation?

Judges play a huge role in the potential reunification of the alienated child and targeted parent. The appropriate orders, and enforcement of those orders, are keys to a minimal disruption of the parent-child relationship. It is important to point out, however, that alienated parents and children can still reconnect and have normal, healthy, loving relationships even when judges don’t recognize parental alienation or put any teeth in their own orders. The parent must continue to reach out to the child through emails, calls, texts, cards, small gifts, invitations, etc. The child may not respond positively for a long time, but he or she will remember the parents efforts and these attempts will make it easier for the child to reconnect with the targeted parent as soon as he or she can. The worst thing an alienated parent can do is throw in the towel because a judge is unwilling, or unable, to take the appropriate steps to address parental alienation.
Sincerely,
mike jeffries
Author, A Family’s Heartbreak: A Parent’s Introduction to Parental Alienation

It’s important to drive home identifiers for alienation that most people think they recognize as truth & is kids being protected but really have it backwards. There are predictable of all kinds patterns to dysfunctional thinking.
– Children often fear their abuser to the point they’ll not dare
risk retaliation for exposing them. The alienated parent is often the
one not feared.
-Kids who get to express their desires to the court will often experience the alienating parent lean on them extra hard to get the child to say what the parent desires.
-Dysfunctional people attempt to isolate others from people & things they enjoy.
-The alienating parent will often behave defensively when cross examined, the culture of don’t blame the victim makes questioning them to much taboo. People who want to know the truth ask questions, that’s a simple reality. Liars hate being questioned, they expect others to comply with their wishes.
-The alienating parent often cites their own past claims to verify their claims the other parent is bad, usually no evidence was ever presented. It’s hard to imagine there is no evidence for actual events, especially over long periods of time.
-The timing of their move to create a gap is more than coincidental, it’s in a move to win.
-The childs reasons are non specific, “I just don’t want see my …” ect… or contain other hall marks of dishonesty such as inconsistency. If they even have their reasons they are constantly coming up with something new regardless of not seeing their alienated parent, it’s a thing they’re engaged in maintaining even with no contact simply because they’re pushed into.
-The lack of details is key, if they were start telling detailed stories they might make an error, if they start naming times & places there could easily be proof that the accused was somewhere else with phone location data, event tickets, eye witnesses, ect…

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