No empirical research exists validating parental alienation syndrome

Rebecca Shiemke
Michigan Poverty Law Program

The January 19, 2015, issue included an “Asked and Answered” feature with attorney Demosthenes Lorandos that described parental alienation syndrome (PAS) and advocated its application by judges in child custody disputes. Unfortunately, the feature was an unbalanced examination of these theories. Lorandos failed to include the opinion of most experts that there exists no empirical research validating PAS and there is extensive research showing that the assumptions underlying PAS are false. Further, Lorandos failed to address the extent to which PAS is erroneously applied – to the detriment of children and parents – in cases involving child maltreatment or domestic abuse. Further, like many advocates of alienation theories, Lorandos conflates PAS and the less offensive parental alienation (PA) in order to avoid the evidentiary and scientific limitations of PAS.

As Lorandos notes, PAS was developed by Richard Gardner in the 1980s, but he fails to disclose that Gardner based his theory on his own anecdotal clinical observations, rather than on any scientifically reliable data. As a result, Gardner’s theory must be understood in the context of his extreme views of child sexual abuse allegations (as raised by mothers) and pedophilia. Gardner believed that false child sexual abuse allegations were widespread in custody disputes and rose to the level of “hysteria.”1 Among his many public statements on pedophilia, Gardner stated: “Pedophilia has been considered the norm by the vast majority of individuals in the history of the world.”2 As a result of these beliefs, Gardner developed PAS, “a disorder of children, arising almost exclusively in child-custody disputes, in which one parent (usually the mother) programs the child to hate the other parent (usually the father).”3 Gardner’s remedies for PAS were extreme and advocated severing all contact between the child and the alleged alienating parent and placing the child in the exclusive care of the parent of whom the child expressed fear.

Scientists, researchers and many influential organizations have rejected PAS. The American Psychological Association has discredited PAS on the ground that it is misused in domestic violence cases and that there is no scientific evidence of such a syndrome.4 The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) cautions judges against its application in custody cases: “Under relevant evidentiary standards, the court should not accept testimony regarding parental alienation syndrome, or ‘PAS.’ The theory positing the existence of PAS had been discredited by the scientific community.”5

A recent attempt to include PAS or parental alienation disorder (PAD), in the 2013 issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) was roundly criticized. The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC) objected to its inclusion because “the empirical data supporting a disorder are quite weak.”6 According to the APSAC, a child’s anger at one or both parents is a normal response to divorce and such a reaction, which may include alienation from one parent, can involve a mix of causes including child maltreatment or exposure to domestic violence. Thus, a major concern is “PAD assumes the professional knows with sufficient certainty that the child has not been maltreated or otherwise traumatized by the parent he or she is trying to avoid by refusing to visit. … Indeed, PAD relies heavily on subjective judgment of the professional making the diagnosis that the child’s rejection is ‘without legitimate justification.’”7

In addition, Lorandos cites several Michigan court decisions purportedly supporting the use of PAS or PA in contested custody cases. In fact, none of these unpublished decisions actually analyzed or ruled on the legal admissibility of the theory. The Court of Appeals in In re Spencley, 2000 WL 33519710 (Mich App 2000) did not rule on PAS noting that appellant did not challenge the admission of the evidence concerning PAS at trial and was therefore precluded from doing so on appeal. Appellate courts across the country have either avoided directly ruling on the admissibility of PAS (often because it was not formally challenged on appeal) or found the theory inadmissible.8

The potential harm of reliance on PAS or PA to explain a child’s behavior toward a parent is particularly acute in cases involving domestic abuse. It is undisputed that children are harmed from exposure to domestic violence in their home even if a child does not directly observe the violence.9 PAS fails to contemplate that a child may exhibit traumatic behavior because the relationship between the child’s parents was violent or abusive.

PAS and PA are too often used to distract from an objective assessment of past abuse of either the child or the child’s parent. One attorney experienced in custody cases involving domestic violence described the misuse of PA as follows: “when PA adherents fail to distinguish between children who are estranged from a non-custodial parent due to abuse or other negative behavior from children who have been wrongly influenced by their favored parent to hate or fear the other.”10 The result is that the child’s fears are attributed to “alienation” rather than to the disfavored parent’s own behaviors. This same expert recommends that in all cases where parental alienation has been raised, abuse should always be assessed first and if verified, the assessment should focus on safety for the child and abused parent. Alienation claims against the abused parent should not be considered unless abuse has been ruled out. Otherwise, PAS, PA or alienation claims without a label will be used to undermine the importance of assessing and responding to abuse allegations.

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 1Gardner, R.A. (1993, February 22). Modern witch hunt--child abuse charges. The Wall Street Journal, p. A10.
2Gardner, R.A. (1992). True and False Accusations of Child Sex Abuse. Cresskill, NJ: Creative Therapeutics. (p. 592-5).
 3Gardner, R.A. (1993, September 6) Dr. Gardner defends work on sex abuse. National Law Journal, p. 16.
4http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2008/01/pas-syndrome.aspx.
 5A Judicial Guide to Child Safety In Custody Cases. National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, 2008 (page 12) at http://www.ncjfcj.org/sites/
default/files/judicial%20guide_0_0.pdf citing the American Psychological Association, “…there are no date to support the phenomenon called parental alienation syndrome…” Am. Psychol. Ass’n, Violence and the Family: Report of the American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family 40, 100 (1994).
 6Faller, K.C. (2010). APSAC responds to inclusion of PAS/PAD information in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. APSAC Advisor, 22(2&3), 20-23.
7Id at p 20.
8For a survey of cases addressing PAS, see http://www.dvleap.org/Resources/PASCaseSurvey.aspx.
9This view is incorporated in the best interest factors, requiring the court to consider “Domestic violence, regardless of whether the violence was directed against or witnessed by the child.” MCL 722.23(k).
Meier, J., Parental Alienation Syndrome and Parental Alienation: Research Reviews, (2013), p. 8 at www.vawnet.org.
 10Id. at 13-15.
 

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