parents stretch childWHAT IS PARENTAL ALIENATION AND WHY IS IT SO BAD?

There is an old African proverb that states “when two elephants fight it is the grass under their feet that suffers”. Similarly, when parents fight over custody and access of their children after a separation it is the children that suffer. In many cases the parents are not even aware of the effect that their custody battle is having on their children and they do not intend to hurt their children. Nevertheless, research shows that children who have lived through a high conflict divorce have a greater tendency to develop mental health issues, addiction issues, are less likely to obtain a post secondary education and have a whole host of other social problems that develop later on in their lives as a result of their negative experience.

In some of the more extreme high conflict custody cases, a dynamic develops whereby one of the parents sets out to sever the children’s ties to the other parent. The American psychiatrist who first coined the phrase “parental alienation” described it as, “a disorder that arises primarily in the context of child custody disputes. Its primary manifestation is the child’s campaign of denigration against a parent, a campaign that has no justification. It results from the combination of a programming parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own contributions to the vilification of the target parent.”

Some of the symptoms of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) which will be added as a diagnosis under the DSM in 2010, are as follows:

The alienated child:

·         Sees one parent as all good and other parent as all bad;

·         Appears to really hate “bad parent” and hates their family and even their pets

·         Feels no guilt about hating parent or treating him/her badly

·         When they talk about alienated parent appear to be putting on a show – affect does not match their words

·         Worries about non alienated parent and is protective of them

·         Blames alienated parent for the divorce

The alienating parent:

·         Allows child to make decisions regarding access

·         Does not encourage access or contact with alienated parent and gives child silent treatment after access visits

·         Tries to delete memory of other parent by taking away pictures of other parent and not speaking about them.

·         Will not let alienated parent come to door or speak with them alone- treats alienated parent as if he/she is dangerous

·         Does not tell alienated parent about special events or school activities involving child

·         Withholds gifts, mail and voice messages from other parent and will not tell child about it.

·         Rewrites family history sometimes to involve stories of sexual and physical abuse by other parent

·         Involves child in litigation by reading court documents to him/her and or using child as messenger

·         Puts child in position where he/she is forced to choose between their parents

As with most things in life, there is a wide spectrum of severity and the blame usually does not fall on one person’s shoulders only. The “alienated parent” often contributes to the problem by making the child feel guilty, rejecting the child, acting aggressively towards the child or to the other parent or by simply giving up hope and abandoning the child. Also, some children are estranged from a parent prior to the separation and it only gets worse after wards. The alienating parents often act the way they do because they feel that they have been abandoned by the other parent and are very hurt by the separation. They themselves may have been abandoned or abused as children.

Richard Gardner and some of his followers are of the view that the only cure to this problem is to take the child out of the custody of the alienating parent, subject the child to intense counseling to de-brainwash the child and then place the child in the alienated parent’s custody. 

Not surprisingly, there are many family court judges who do not accept that this is the only solution to the problem. Instead, they try to affect a change in the dynamic by making access orders enforceable by the police, making a parent who is withholding access pay a fine or even ordering that the alienating parent go to jail if they breach the access order again.

In the US there are some residential programs available for families with this problem. In Canada, there are therapists who specialize in assisting families with this problem, but there are no residential programs that I am aware of.

In my view the essential thing is to prevent the alienation from happening in the first place. This can be done by identifying the early symptoms and ensuring that there is an access plan in place very shortly after the separation that is strongly enforced by the court. It is also essential that all parties involved get counseling to identify the issues that are at the root of the problem and bring them to the surface and that professionals involved in helping parents who are separating and divorcing are trained to recognize the early symptoms.

There have been recent amendments made to the Children’s Law Reform Act to reinforce the idea that maximum contact with both parents is generally in the best interests of children and that parents have an obligation not only to allow access, but to facilitate that access.

If you are fearful that this dynamic may be occurring in your family, please don’t wait for things to get better. Parental alienation is like cancer- if left untreated it will grow and kill your relationship with your child. Children in families where there is this dynamic are “victims” of abuse and end up exhibiting the same symptoms as children who are physically and sexually abused by their family members. You have a responsibility to protect your children from this abuse, as do all the professionals who are involved in your case.

The new provisions of legislation in Ontario are as follows:

34 (2) If the court is satisfied that the responding party wrongfully denied the moving party access to the child, the court may, by order,

(a) require the responding party to give the moving party compensatory access to the child for the period agreed to by the parties, or for the period the court considers appropriate if the parties do not agree;

(b) require supervision as described in section 34;

(c) require the responding party to reimburse the moving party for any reasonable expenses actually incurred as a result of the wrongful denial of access;

(d) appoint a mediator in accordance with section 31 as if the motion were an application for access. R.S.O. 1990, c. C.12, s. 83.

Period of compensatory access

(3)  A period of compensatory access shall not be longer than the period of access that was wrongfully denied. R.S.O. 1990, c. C.12, s. 83.

What constitutes wrongful denial of access

(4)  A denial of access is wrongful unless it is justified by a legitimate reason such as one of the following:

1. The responding party believed on reasonable grounds that the child might suffer physical or emotional harm if the right of access were exercised.

2. The responding party believed on reasonable grounds that he or she might suffer physical harm if the right of access were exercised.

3. The responding party believed on reasonable grounds that the moving party was impaired by alcohol or a drug at the time of access.

4. The moving party failed to present himself or herself to exercise the right of access within one hour of the time specified in the order or the time otherwise agreed on by the parties.

5. The responding party believed on reasonable grounds that the child was suffering from an illness of such a nature that it was not appropriate in the circumstances that the right of access be exercised.

6. The moving party did not satisfy written conditions concerning access that were agreed to by the parties or that form part of the order for access.

7. On numerous occasions during the preceding year, the moving party had, without reasonable notice and excuse, failed to exercise the right of access.

8. The moving party had informed the responding party that he or she would not seek to exercise the right of access on the occasion in question. R.S.O. 1990, c. C.12, s. 83.

Motion re failure to exercise of right of access, etc.

(5)  A person in whose favour an order has been made for custody of a child and who claims that a person in whose favour an order has been made for access to the child has, without reasonable notice and excuse, failed to exercise the right of access or to return the child as the order requires, may make a motion for relief under subsection (6) to the court that made the access order. R.S.O. 1990, c. C.12, s. 83.

Order for relief

(6)  If the court is satisfied that the responding party, without reasonable notice and excuse, failed to exercise the right of access or to return the child as the order requires, the court may, by order,

(a) require supervision as described in section 34;

(b) require the responding party to reimburse the moving party for any reasonable expenses actually incurred as a result of the failure to exercise the right of access or to return the child as the order requires;

(c) appoint a mediator in accordance with section 31 as if the motion were an application for access. R.S.O. 1990, c. C.12, s. 83.