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Parental alienation & a bridge for sale in Brooklyn

Today’s episode of “” is brought to you by the letters BS – er, I mean PAS – “Parental Alienation Syndrome”. Yup, it’s been another one of those daze: most of the state is off from work in recognition of King Kamehameha Day but domestic violence doesn’t recognize holidays (or weekends, special occasions, the need for sleep…) Nope, DV is a 7/24/365 gig.

Oh yea, DV can get THAT weird IF you can be so easily convinced
Simon Howden

Sometimes all the calls I get in a day inexplicably focus around a single issue and today was one of those days. Unfortunately, the topic of the day was “parental alienation” (PA) – one of my BIGGEST pet peeves. I could write a book about all the whys, starting with its creator Richard Gardner and ending with how PA makes even smart people look stupid but here I’d better clarify: my frustration over PA and all of its derivatives (PAS, child alienation) is aimed at the professional population, not those who feel they are being afflicted by “PA”. I’ll explain:

A few years back, I had a case where a DV survivor had been (unknowingly) MISdiagnosed by physicians. The original misdiagnosis was given to her in childhood and was subsequently passed down from medical chart to medical chart unquestioningly, therefore the vocabulary she was taught to describe her condition was also erroneous. PA is much the same way – I’m not saying something doesn’t exist but what I am saying is that people have been given the wrong vocabulary to describe what’s going on and I hold the professionals responsible for perpetuating the MISdiagnosis because as the professionals, they should know better. Allowing the misdiagnosis to continue – and worse, promoting and profiting off of it at the expense of people’s lives – just makes my blood boil!

So here’s the official MISdiagnosis: parental alienation. What is it? Well, here’s problem Number 1: I can’t even find a credible source to provide an accurate definition of what it is for you! Do an internet search yourself – what pops up in between the psychologists offering treatment for it, the attorneys saying they know how to fight it and win is a slew of fathers’ and children’s rights organizations and websites from those who’ve “been there done that”. A search on the American Psychological Association website provides nothing beyond the following position statement

The American Psychological Association (APA) believes that all mental health practitioners as well as law enforcement officials and the courts must take any reports of domestic violence in divorce and child custody cases seriously. An APA 1996 Presidential Task Force on Violence and the Family noted the lack of data to support so-called "parental alienation syndrome", and raised concern about the term's use. However, we have no official position on the purported syndrome.

And the American Bar Association website points to a litany of papers and articles but yields no definition or official position statement. Curiously, one of the first papers featured on the ABA website promotes the paper “Understanding and Evaluating Alienation in High-Conflict Custody Cases written by psychologist Philip Stahl where he refers to and cites the work of other psychologists such as Judith Wallerstein, Joan Kelly and Mary Lund; none of the four psychologists are members of the APA (how would you feel if your physician wasn’t a member of the American Medical Association?) and Janet Johnston, who Stahl also refers to, is a Psychodynamic Counselor not subject to APA jurisdiction since she resides in Scotland.

What’s my point? So the psychologists that are considered the “experts” in “parental alienation” are not subject to the scientific or ethical standards of the APA (that opposes PA) but are being promoted on the ABA website that says it has nearly 400,000 members? That’s 400,000 professionals who stand to think that PA is real! Why is that scary? Because those professionals are misdiagnosing the facts of people’s lives on a fiction!

“Parental Alienation” is purportedly what happens when one parent badmouths the other parent in a campaign of hatred, the result being that the child/ren don’t want to be involved or maintain a relationship with the “alienated parent” typically in a divorce case. Stahl’s paper seeks to diffuse the controversy surrounding PA and Gardner’s discredited work by essentially saying “the problem is the word ‘syndrome’” so he offers the word “unreasonable” to not throw the baby out with the bathwater saying “parental alienation is defined as a child’s unreasonable rejection of one parent due to the influence of the other parent combined with the child’s own contributions”. (Now Stahl can live comfortably for the rest of his life training professionals about PA as can Wallerstein, Kelly, Lund and Johnston.)

Alienation, in and of itself, is a real and valid phenomena and it doesn’t necessarily mean bad. Did you ever have a relationship where it just faded away for no particular reason like because of time, age, distance, context, circumstance, etc? If you bumped into that person again, you might feel awkward because it’s been awhile; it’s likely you’ve both changed and may not have much in-common anymore – it’s no one’s fault, it just is and it just happened. On the other hand, have you ever ended a relationship on a really bad note and never spoken to that person again? It doesn’t matter what the value of the relationship was then because now it no longer has the same value for one or both of you – that’s alienation too.

A relationship takes two and an active two (not one active and one passive or absent). As a matter of fact, that philosophy is the foundation of Hawaii’s no-fault divorce: if one person doesn’t want to be married anymore, it’s over because you can’t have a marriage with only one person wanting it – you can’t force someone to love, like or have a relationship with someone he/she doesn’t want to. Relationships are all about chemistry and communication and presuming it’s all healthy and good, we’re on the right track but domestic violence is NOT healthy or good for anyone involved in it and that’s what we’re talking about here.

What everyone needs to understand about DV is that a victim and child’s lives change dramatically once she’s successfully left – EVERYTHING changes because of things the victim and children learn once they’re out and away from the abuser. The accompanying You Tube video is an example of why and how that comes about, but just as a “for instance”: whereas keeping secrets was once a way of life in the abusive relationship, it becomes a “thou shalt not keep secrets” post-separation.

In the meantime, nothing behaviorally changes in the abuser’s life – he’s not growing, learning or coming to terms with his victimization because he’s not the one who was victimized – all those behaviors on the Power & Control Wheel are still alive, active and unabated. Things like TROs and physical separations (jail works too) can keep him from getting his way, but all that’s doing is ADDING to his anger and frustration.

When the kids go on visitation, the abuser hasn’t changed but the kids have and while the kids might’ve been ok to put up with the abuser’s tactics PRE-separation, they may be more inclined to do “Say NO, go and tell” POST-separation. When professionals intervene or become involved, now the abuser has someone to “cry foul” (PA) to because his kids aren’t minding him anymore or they don’t like/love/respect him anymore. Do you really need a PhD or a PsyD to figure out that the kids realize that abuse is wrong now and that they know not to keep secrets anymore?

In the meantime, the abuser will say the survivor is not cooperating or co-parenting and to a degree he’s right because she’s learned that the way he treated her and continues to treat her is WRONG so she’s not going to respond to him in the same way as she did before (she's not going to be cooperatively compliant/submissive). Now if she sees or hears from her kids that they’re being mistreated, she’s going to do as she’s been told and report it. Because she’s healed from the abuse her maternal instinct is in full affect and I’ve yet to see any mother in any life form stand aside to let her babies be hurt.

Professionals who refer to PA (and other alienation theories) exemplify their ignorance about domestic violence by treating PA as a fact rather then the fiction that it is. To be fair, these professionals are also (inappropriately) charged with the task of trying to foster and encourage abuser-victim relationships for “the best interests of the child” (and survivors have a tendency to not be ok with that) so instead of protecting the kids, professionals subscribing to the belief of PA makes them put children in harm's way.

For those professionals who pursue “clinical expertise” in PA by attending trainings on it, the snake-oil salesmen (PA experts) are laughing all the way to the bank. I guess there might be some humor in seeing charlatans snooker those who are supposed to be our best and brightest but not when it comes at the expense of our most at-risk and vulnerable.


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