A Drastic Remedy for Parental Alienation?

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The Washington Post has an extensive article on a new and developing trend that courts have employed with mixed results to address issues of parental alienation. We encourage all to give it a read.

Parental alienation syndrome, first coined by psychiatrist Richard Gardner in 1985, describes a situation where children in a divorced family become estranged from one parent because of the conscious actions of the other parent to “turn” the children against the other parent. While the medical community remains divided over whether to classify this behavior as an official psychiatric disorder, the reality of such behavior in some high-conflict divorces remains a fact that courts have to confront every day.

Some courts use different types of therapies to bring the family back into working order, from traditional counseling to mediation-based programs to forced changes in custody. The most radical approach involves the subject of the Washington Post article – forced reunification. In this program, the court under threat of a warrant surprises the children; they are taken to a retreat, often out of town, where they meet their estranged parent and begin a residential treatment program that lasts from one to two weeks of intensive therapy with the goal of rooting out the causes of the bitter feelings between child and parent. After completing the inpatient treatment, the children go to live exclusively with the now-reunified parent for at least three months in an attempt to normalize relationships.

Programs for reunification like those just described have mixed results and have been met with controversy as too extreme or ineffectual. Some argue that the reasons children feel ambivalent or hostile to a parent belie the simple reason that one parent has turned the children against the other parent, and such a drastic transfer of custody only creates new trauma rather than alleviates the alienation.

How do courts handle alienation in Missouri?

Generally, when one parent shows hostility toward another with regard to allowing periods of custody or comments about the other parent, the aggrieved parent will first utilize either a family access motion or a contempt motion in order to enlist the court in helping stop the noncompliance with court-ordered physical custody schedules, all of which contain clauses about not disparaging the other parent. A court may also order counseling and appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the interests of the children.

In many cases, working with a therapist and guardian ad litem can lead to positive progress in alienation cases. But sometimes the parent causing the alienation will double down on the behavior and insist that the other parent poses a threat of harm to the children. When this happens, some custody showdown becomes inevitable and a court may alter physical custody to favor the aggrieved parent, sometimes by making that parent the sole physical custodian.

Alienation intervention can be very complex work and has less favorable results when the hostility began during the marriage, involves claims of physical or sexual abuse, or when the children are nearing majority and feel less inclined to resolve feelings rather than move faster to emancipation.

The unfortunate truth may be that at the moment we have approaches to alienation but no solid solutions because every family is unique and unpacking psychological trauma in continually hostile environments for children can just be too overwhelming. We need more strategies, more research and more innovation to work to eliminate these extreme cases so that children post-divorce can have healthy relationships with both parents.

If you have questions about parental alienation and child custody, contact us – we can help.

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