Parental alienation: a case study

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By Marie E. Matyjaszek

An unpublished Michigan Court of Appeals opinion, issued on January 23, reviewed a custody award involving parental alienation and deviations from child support (Brian Harner v Kayla Harner, Court of Appeals Case No. 338746). The case hails from my old stomping grounds of Jackson County. 

The divorce trial, which lasted for four days over a span of seven months, involved three minor children, all of whom had a certain aspect of autism. While the parties had agreed on joint custody during the divorce, it was the main argument at trial.

Practically from the word “go,” mom started interfering with dad’s parenting time – repeatedly calling the children when they were with their dad, sending police to conduct numerous welfare checks, and accusing dad of neglect and abuse. She also sought a personal protection order. As the Court of Appeals put it, “the claims escalated over time to include allegations of sexual abuse, which became more disturbing with each retelling.” 
A plethora of Child Protective Services (CPS) cases were opened and closed as unsubstantiated, and three criminal investigations were conducted. The only CPS exception was that dad had threatened mom with the children present. As is common with CPS involvement, dad had been unable to exercise his parenting time, which further distanced the children from him and damaged their relationship. 

Police, CPS, and two psychologists testified at the trial that the abuse allegations were seriously doubted, and instead pointed toward coaching of the children by their mother. Mom had told one psychologist that she did not believe CPS and the police had done their jobs. 

The trial court held that for more than one year the mother “had engaged in acts that caused the unsubstantiated abuse claims against [dad] and resulted in the disruption of his parenting time.” As such, the trial court granted sole physical and sole legal custody of the children to the father. However, it recognized that due to the parental alienation that had occurred, reunification therapy was necessary. 

The Court of Appeals strongly sided with the trial court in its custody award to father, stating: 

There was evidence of numerous, ever-growing, increasingly-egregious, and highly-suspect claims of abuse by the children that were unsubstantiated and called into question by several witnesses, giving rise to a reasonable conclusion that no abuse occurred, along with a reasonable inference that the claims were attributable to conduct, coaching, and communications by [mother], which can be properly characterized as acts fostering parental alienation.  The implications drawn from the evidence are matters of common understanding.

In ordering child support, the trial court took note that dad had been paying $650 per month during the divorce, and ordered him to pay monthly for the reunification therapy up to the same amount of $650. As this type of payment would be considered a deviation from the Michigan Child Support Formula, an examination of why the deviation from the formula recommended amount was necessary. The Court of Appeals did find that due to the lack of an explanation relative to the deviation, the trial court had erred and remanded the case for this issue only.

In my opinion, this unpublished case provides two exceptional examples. First, it serves as an excellent reminder to attorney referees and judges alike that when deviating from the child support formula, you need to specifically state and cite the reasons for the deviation. Secondly, it sets forth specific examples of behavior by a parent that justify classifying that behavior as parental alienation. Most importantly, the trial court’s ruling, and the Court of Appeals’ affirmation of that ruling, sets the example that this type of behavior cannot be tolerated, and will have consequences. 

As it stands, the children reside with the mother while undergoing reunification therapy to work towards permanent placement with their dad. Helping this fractured family heal will hopefully be a lifelong goal that both parents will seek.

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The author is an Attorney Referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own. Her blog site is http://legalbling.blogspot.com. She can be reached at matyjasz@hotmail.com.

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