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.
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.
Eliana 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.