Asked & Answered: Demosthenes Lorandos on Parental Alienation Syndrome

 By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News
 
Imagine your child expressing such hatred or strong dislike for you that reaching out to the youngster is difficult or impossible. That’s the tragic situation addressed by Dr. Demosthenes Lorandos in his book, “Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals,” shedding light on a social dynamic that can play a vital role in family, matrimonial and child-custody litigation. The hardcover 535-page book, edited by Lorandos, William Bernet and RIchard Sauber, was published in 2013 by Charles C. Thomas and garnered excellent reviews across the country. It provides attorneys, judges, and mental health professionals with a reference guide to aid them in developing data sources to support their positions and shows them where to go to find the latest material on a topic. Legal professionals will find ready access to state- or province-specific legal citations spanning 35 years of parental alienation cases. A separate CD-ROM at the back of the book provides reference materials from more than 500 cases in which an expert testified about parental alienation, the judge found parental alienation, or both. Lorandos also includes vignettes of actual cases.
A partner at Lorandos Joshi trial lawyers in Ann Arbor, Lorandos is also a Ph.D.-level psychologist with many years of clinical experience. In constant demand across the country as a litigator, he is a noted speaker and author whose works include “Cross Examining Experts in the Behavioral Sciences,” “The International Handbook of Parental Alienation Syndrome,” and “Benchbook in the Behavioral Sciences Social Work.”
Lorandos holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from San Francisco State University; master’s degree in personality psychology from the New York School for Social Research; Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio; and J.D. from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
Pursglove: What is parental alienation?
Lorandos: It is a phenomenon that was initially studied and discussed by child psychiatrist Richard Gardner in the 1980s. During his study, Gardner observed that an alarmingly common tactic in high-conflict custody cases was a false allegation of child abuse. Dismayed by the developing frequency of false allegations of child sexual abuse among divorcing parents, Gardner labeled this phenomenon as Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). Gardner further refined the description of PAS as a “child’s campaign of denigration against a parent . . . that has no justification . . . [and] results from the combination of a programming (brainwashing) parent’s indoctrinations and the child’s own vilification of the target parent.”
Since Gardner first began his work on PAS, more and more research has been conducted to further understand this phenomenon, its symptoms, its effects, and methods of prevention. The DSM-V, for instance, describes the parental alienation dynamic under the category of “Parent-Child Relational Problem” and assesses the dynamic as a form of child abuse.
Moreover, parental alienation has gained traction in many American courts. The concept has been discussed in numerous custody cases, including expert testimony that both supports and challenges the phenomenon. 
Pursglove: What are the symptoms of parental alienation in children?
Lorandos: Parental alienation leads to a disturbed and highly dysfunctional family dynamic. According to Leona M. Kopetski’s 10-year Colorado research, under these stressful conditions, an alienated child may suffer from the following symptoms: anxious attachment or separation; unusual distress during transitions from one parent to the other; failure to achieve expected levels of impulse control; problems with self-esteem resulting from being overvalued in ways that are detrimental and undervalued in ways that would be helpful; problems with reality testing resulting from mirroring the psycho-social pathology of the alienating parent; and problems with developing appropriate responses to grief and loss of significant others as a result of the loss of an alienated parent within an environment where there is no help with sadness and grieving from the alienating parent.
Pursglove: What are the typical traits and behaviors exhibited by perpetrators of parental alienation?
Lorandos: Many researchers explain that alienator parents tend to be rigidly defensive and moralistic. These alienators perceive themselves to be flawless, virtuous, and externalize responsibility onto others. They lack insight into their own behavior and the impact their behavior has on others.
In 1989, Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee described female alienators with “Medea-like rage.” They wrote: “A woman betrayed by her husband is deeply opposed to the fact that her children must visit him every other weekend . . . . She cannot stop the visit, but she can plant seeds of doubt – ‘Do not trust your father’ – in the children’s minds and thus punish her ex-husband via the children. She does this consciously or unconsciously, casting the seeds of doubt by the way she acts and the questions she asks.”
In 1998, Vivienne Roseby and Janet Johnston described the perspective of the alienators: “The other parent is seen as irrelevant, irresponsible or even dangerous, whereas the self is seen as the essential, responsible, and safe caretaker. These parents tend to selectively perceive and distort the child’s concerns regarding the other parent.” Also, psychological disturbance, including histrionic, paranoid, and narcissistic personality disorders or characteristics, as well as psychosis, suicidal behavior, and substance abuse are common among alienator parents.
Pursglove: What are the criteria for identifying and diagnosing parental alienation?
Lorandos: Diagnosing parental alienation is based upon the level of symptoms in the child, not the symptom level of the alienator. The primary behavioral symptoms involve the following two criteria:
(1) Campaign of denigration against the target parent: The child often presents complaints in a litany, some trivial, many false or irrational. Also, the child often denies ever having experienced good times with the target parent when that is clearly not the case. (2) Frivolous rationalizations for the child’s criticism of the target parent: The child’s reactions of hatred or disdain are unjustified and disproportionate to the circumstances they describe. They may claim to be fearful, but they do so easily and without typical fear reactions.
When a child exhibits both of these criteria along with two or more of the following, it is parental alienation. 
• Lack of ambivalence: The child manifests all-or-none thinking, idealizing the alienating parent and devaluing the target parent.
• Independent-thinker phenomenon: The child proudly states the decision to reject the target parent is his or her own, not influenced by the alienating parent.
• Reflexive support of the alienating parent against the target parent: The child immediately and automatically takes the alienating parent’s side in a disagreement.
• Absence of guilt over exploitation and mistreatment of the target parent: The child may be oppositional, rude, disrespectful, and even violent toward the target parent and shows little or no remorse for those behaviors.
• Borrowed scenarios: The child makes rehearsed statements that are identical to those made by the alienating parent. Younger siblings may mimic what they have heard their older sibling say. They usually are unable to elaborate on the details of the events they allege.
• Spread of the child’s animosity toward the target parent’s extended family: Expressed feelings and hatred often include the extended family or friends of the target parent, even when the child has had little or no contact with them. Occasionally, the child’s hatred extends to pets of the target parent. Notwithstanding, there are many reasons why a child may not want to see a parent after a separation or divorce. Researcher Amy Baker made a cogent point that it is important to distinguish between “estrangement” and “alienation” when diagnosing a child. Estrangement refers to a child’s rejection of a parent that is justified “as a consequence of the rejected parent’s history of family violence, abuse and neglect.” In contrast, alienation refers to a child’s rejection of a parent that is unjustified. With that distinction in mind, estrangement is not a diagnosable mental condition because it is normal behavior. Alienation, on the other hand, is an abnormal mental condition because it consists of maladaptive behavior (refusal to see a loving parent) that is driven by a false or illogical belief (that the rejected parent is evil, dangerous, or not worthy of love). Therefore, in order to make a differential diagnosis of alienation, clinicians and attorneys must ensure that they are not mislabeling estrangement as alienation.
Pursglove: How have contemporary courts handled cases with parental alienation?
Lorandos: American courts have become more adept at recognizing parental alienation and taking steps to prevent future alienation. Certainly, there is always room for improvement, but jurisdictions like Michigan have become more sophisticated in this often-confusing arena. For example, in Hopkins v. Whittemore, the court took steps to protect the child by ordering a custody evaluation “because of possible parental alienation.” No. 250176, 2004 WL 539085 (Mich. Ct. App. Mar. 18, 2004).
Even where the label “parental alienation syndrome” was not used, Michigan courts have nonetheless recognized that the underlying behaviors (whether termed PAS or not) are alarming and worthy of immediate remedial action. In re Spencely noted: “Although appellant disputes the legitimacy of [the PAS] theory, we agree with petitioner that the psychologist’s use of this theory at trial was merely a way to explain appellant’s behavior to deprive the children of their emotional well-being. In fact, there was a great deal of evidence that appellant was manipulating the children to alienate them from their father.” In re Spencley, No. 219801, 2000 WL 33519710 (Mich. Ct. App. Apr. 7, 2000).
More recently, at least one Michigan court properly considered parental alienation in evaluating the best interests of the child. Specifically, the court recognized that the phenomenon fit with the kinds of considerations enumerated in Michigan’s best interest factors. “Under factor L, the catch-all factor, the court found that the child had been alienated from society and from her father at times, and again noted that plaintiff coached her before meeting with [court-appointed masters psychologist counselor and evaluator Lynn] Clynick. However, there was no evidence to support the court’s finding of alienation, as Clynick testified that she did not see evidence of parental alienation.” Lasley v. Miller, No. 303060, 2011 WL 5248214 (Mich. Ct. App. Nov. 3, 2011).
Pursglove: What is the attorney’s role in a parental alienation case?
Lorandos: An attorney handling a parental alienation case must have sufficient expertise and background to effectively identify the underlying issues and explain them to a fact-finder. Parental alienation cases typically turn on expert testimony. The court will rely on expert testimony to determine the existence of parental alienation, and the court will rely on expert advice on what to do about it. Parents should not expect impartiality from the other side’s experts, and should not expect complete impartiality from court-appointed experts. Attorneys, therefore, must be familiar with the latest research on parental alienation and locate and work with the necessary experts to accomplish the client’s goals. Legal counsel must also be competent to separate good science from junk science and ensure meaningful cross-examination of opposing experts. 
 

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