Parental Alienation and Child Custody in California

Children may suffer when their parents battle over custody.

By , Attorney

Child custody disputes are stressful on clients, attorneys, judges and, most importantly, the children. Custody cases can be expensive to litigate and often involve one or more mental health practitioners. And, in severely damaged relationships between spouses, another party to the family relationship – the child – usually suffers the most from the parents' continued battles.

Most custody cases involve disputes over timeshare, meaning parents can't agree on how much time each of them should spend with the children. Although historically, courts used to believe that children should spend more time with their mothers, today, courts strive to ensure that children have frequent and continuing contact with both parents, unless shared custody is not in the children's best interests.

What is Parental Alienation?

A more difficult custody situation arises when one parent (parent A) claims that the other (parent B) is causing the child to reject parent A. If parent B is in fact actively working to undermine parent A's relationship with the child, by continuously denigrating parent A in front of the child, that is known as "parental alienation."

Examples of parental alienation include, but are not limited to:

  • if a father tells a child, "Your mom doesn't want to see you tonight" when in reality mom is sick or the father told the mother the child couldn't make, and
  • if a mother repeatedly tells the child, "Your father doesn't love us" or things of that nature.

What is Parental Alienation Syndrome?

If the child adopts his or her parent's statements, believes them to be true, and acts out on them by rejecting the other parent, some psychiatrists will say that the child has developed "Parental Alienation Syndrome" (PAS).

PAS is when a parent has repeatedly presented a negative view of the other parent to the child, such that the child no longer wants to spent time with the other parent. The primary distinction between parental alienation and PAS, is that with PAS the child has adopted the negative view of the other parent as a result of the alienating parent's campaign to undermine the relationship.

Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) theory was developed by Dr. Richard Gardner, and it traditionally held mothers responsible for negative feelings that children expressed toward their fathers. The use of PAS today can be problematic and disconcerting because PAS can be used by expert psychologists in family law courts to discredit claims of child sexual abuse and domestic violence the children may have suffered or witnessed.

Further, PAS is not generally accepted in the psychological and psychiatric communities because (1) PAS is not a valid psychiatric diagnosis as it's not recognized in the DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), and (2) there is no hard data to truly support the existence of PAS or its determination.

How do Courts Deal with Parental Alienation Claims?

Whether or not PAS is an actual syndrome, courts have acknowledged parental alienation and have found ways to address it. When presented with claims of alienation, it will be crucial that the court determine why the child is alienated, and how to remedy and repair the broken relationship in order to establish both parents' roles in raising the child.

Some experts state that there are three levels of parental alienation: mild, moderate, and severe. In mild and moderate cases, parental alienation can be handled by therapy and by increasing the amount of time that the child spends with the alienated parent. Typically, a child custody evaluation will be performed by an expert to determine the severity of the problem and from that, recommendations are made for therapy and specific time share to improve the relationship between parent and child.

In the most severe alienation cases, the only real solution is to remove the child from the house of the alienating parent and place him or her with the alienated parent. In such severe cases, the alienating parent usually lacks empathy and remorse and will continue to damage the child and sabotage the chances of securing a good relationship with the ousted parent.

Before judges will change custody from one parent to another, they usually want to have a psychological evaluation, which can take anywhere from three months to a year to complete. Some evaluators believe that everyone can be cured with therapy and thus are very reluctant to recommend a custody change to the alienated parent.

Instead, psychologists generally recommend a reunification plan, which involves therapy. The problem is, however, that any benefits gained in therapy are quickly lost when the child returns to the emotional control of the alienating parent. Additionally, the cost of the attorneys, evaluators, and therapists can become staggering. The college education funds of many children of divorced parents have been spent in custody fights.

Once it is obvious that the reunification is not working, the court will want the same or a new psychologist to do a re-evaluation, which again takes a number of months to perform.

Meanwhile, years go by and the alienation becomes worse.

The focus in handling this case for the alienated parent is to push the court for quicker action. Attention should be given to educating the court on the long-term effects of parental alienation through hiring experts who can provide the court with a greater understanding of the long-term damage being done to the children.

Should I Hire an Attorney?

The challenge in severe alienation cases lies in trying to get the court to act quickly. Moreover, these cases are extremely complex and always require expert testimony.

If you're an alienated parent, you should definitely secure the services of a qualified family law attorney skilled in handling these legally complex and emotionally charged cases.

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Considering Divorce?

Talk to a Divorce attorney.

We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you