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Do courts use a controversial theory to punish mothers who allege abuse?

‘Parental alienation’ is sometimes used in family court to wrest custody from a parent who alleges abuse

The once prominent child psychiatrist Richard A. Gardner coined “parental alienation syndrome” in the 1980s. Embraced by fathers’-rights advocates, the theory has been rejected by many experts and has never been recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Christa Renee/Getty Images

On a winter evening in 2009, Anna Cooper was with her 5-year-old son, Ben, at her parents’ apartment in Connecticut. Cooper, who had filed for divorce just a few months earlier, was relaxing in the living-room rocking chair while Ben was playing with his toy train set when, without warning, he reached for his mother and thrust his hand between her legs. (Cooper’s name and those of other family members have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Cooper, horrified, asked Ben if his friends played that way. “And he goes, ‘Not friends. Daddy plays that way,’” she says. “My whole world just fell apart.”

Two weeks later, Cooper took Ben to see a pediatrician, Richard Whelan. During the visit, the boy hid under the table and told the doctor that his father “grabs at his crotch” as a game, according to Whelan’s notes from the visit, which were provided to her and to Eli Newberger, founder of the child-protection unit at Boston Children’s Hospital. Cooper says Whelan told her that he planned to refer the case to the sex-abuse clinic at Yale University. (Whelan is now retired; a man who identified himself as Dr. Richard Whelan declined to comment, citing patient confidentiality.)

Shortly after the visit, Cooper was warned against taking Ben to Yale. In a letter, her husband's lawyer, Noah Eisenhandler, wrote that her “insistence on exposing this child to these baseless accusations will result in a request for sole custody based upon child alienation.” He cautioned her to “tread very lightly on these allegations that she is making.” (Both Eisenhandler and Cooper’s ex-husband denied requests for comment.) 

Cooper didn’t know what Eisenhandler was talking about. She had no idea that “alienation” referred to a controversial form of emotional abuse that typically involves children in high-conflict custody disputes. Nor did she know its history — that alienation is rooted in the theories of Richard A. Gardner, the once prominent child psychiatrist who spent much of his career arguing that women often fabricated custody-related child-abuse claims and programmed their children to do the same. He called this phenomenon parental alienation syndrome, or PAS.

For the last two decades, the concept has been the subject of a high-pitched, highly gendered debate. Despite a recent campaign to add the syndrome to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the concept is still not officially recognized. Many experts argue that when alienation surfaces in the legal system, it is used to punish well-intentioned mothers who raise allegations of abuse.

“It really is Gardner’s PAS that laid the groundwork for what is happening in family courts across the country,” says Joan Meier, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University. “When a mother alleges abuse or children allege abuse or fear or hostility to a parent who is alleged to have been abusive, it tends to be very quickly attributed to the mother’s vendetta.”

Two years ago, for instance, a judge in a California custody case suggested that a mother was alienating her two sons and turning them against their father, who had been convicted of raping the mother. Against her objections — as well as the recommendations of a court-appointed custody evaluator — the judge ruled that the father should be reunited with their children immediately after his release from prison.

In Iowa a few years ago, a father involved in a custody case was accused of sexually abusing his two daughters. He countered that their grandmother — who had been caring for the children and first reported the possibility of abuse — had brainwashed the girls. The judge refused to hear testimony from child-protective workers and therapists who found the allegations credible, and the grandmother was limited to supervised visitation rights. The father, meanwhile, was awarded joint custody.

After the incident at her home, Cooper requested — and was granted — sole custody of Ben. By raising the possibility of abuse, she risked losing it completely.

I see parent after parent after parent punished for raising good-faith allegations in court in order to get the authorities looking at the same evidence they’ve seen.

Gregory Jacob

former Department of Labor solicitor

When Gardner coined PAS in the mid-1980s, he believed that custody-related fabrications constituted a kind of hysteria; he described these accusatory mothers as “sadistic” animals who “literally fight to the death in order to safeguard their progeny.” Their goal, he wrote, was “the total elimination of the father.” Gardner also believed that these parents were perverted and that they found “vicarious gratification” in making false child-sex-abuse claims. Because these mothers were so uncooperative, he believed in a style of therapy that seemed more like punishment. It must be court-ordered, and fines, reduction of visitation, loss of custody and jail were appropriate remedies.

Gardner was embraced by fathers’-rights advocates, and he worked on hundreds of cases across the country. “Richard Gardner’s contributions provided a foundation for subsequent work in the field,” says Richard Warshak, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and author of “Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family From Bad-Mouthing and Brainwashing.”

Yet a six-month study conducted in 1987 and 1988 by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts found no evidence of the hysteria Gardner described. “What he was seeing, he tried to understand through one lens,” says Robin Deutsch, a psychologist and director of the Center of Excellence for Children, Families and the Law at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology. “So he made all of this stuff up.”

Since Gardner committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 72, the study of alienation has flourished. Psychologists like Warshak have written popular books about the subject; lawyers promote themselves as specialists. Governors and mayors from Alabama to Illinois have signed proclamations recognizing its ostensibly tragic consequences. For her book “Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind,” research psychologist Amy Baker interviewed 40 adults who told her they were manipulated into rejecting a parent. “They hated themselves because they participated in it,” she says. “They have grown into depressed adults who have low self-esteem and problems trusting others.”

It is unclear how frequently alienation appears in custody battles or what the genders are of the accusers and the accused. As with Cooper’s case, the term “alienation” may not even appear in publicly available court records, so it is difficult for researchers to make empirical assessments. Eileen King, a former director of the Washington, D.C., Office for Justice for Children, tells Al Jazeera America that from 2000 to 2012 she typically had 50 to 70 alienation-type cases at any given time. Often, these were cases in which a mother reported a classic symptom of abuse — acting in a sexually inappropriate manner, for instance, or having overly sexualized knowledge. Every time, she says, “those cases were not considered to be credible because the mother was considered to be alienating or because she was thought to have a mental-health issue.”

One of the pro bono lawyers King turned to with these cases was Gregory Jacob, a former solicitor in George W. Bush’s Department of Labor. “I see parent after parent after parent punished for raising good-faith allegations in court in order to get the authorities looking at the same evidence they’ve seen,” he says. In all but one of the 20 to 30 cases Jacob has handled over the last 13 years, the accused abuser opted for the same defense: She’s trying to alienate me from my child. “It’s what I would do if I was an attorney representing an abuser,” he says.

Baker says one way to prevent false allegations of alienation is by “acknowledging and agreeing on the criteria for a true case.” Her solution is to add parental alienation syndrome to the DSM.

Yet this proposal remains highly contentious. As the American Psychiatric Association was preparing the most recent edition of the DSM, advocacy groups dueled over an effort backed by Baker and others to include it. In a 2010 letter to the APA, the National Organization for Women (NOW) described alienation as having no scientific foundation. “We believe that if the proposed subject disorder is added to the DSM-V it will be given an undeserved credibility as it is used unfairly against protective parents — usually mothers — in the courts,” the group wrote. Meanwhile, Fathers and Families (now called the National Parents Organization), argued that NOW was attempting to “suppress” the recognition of alienation and urged its supporters to back the DSM campaign. 

In the end, the APA did not adopt it as a psychiatric diagnosis. Baker, however, still claims something of a victory: Though parental alienation syndrome, or parental alienation disorder, as it has also been called, is not mentioned in the DSM, language that pertains to it was added to an already recognized condition, parent-child relational problem, as well as a new one, child psychological abuse. “The words are not in there — the concept is in there. If you were treating a child who has this problem, you could treat them,” Baker says.

In the meantime, children involved in false alienation cases can wind up trapped with their abusers, says King, who recently started her own organization, Child Justice. There’s an assumption “that fathers are essential to raising their children,” King says. “Children do not do better with an abusive parent — no matter if it is a man or if it is a woman.”

I always believed in our justice system. That’s why I invested everything in it. Do I believe in it now? No, I don’t. I absolutely don’t.

Catherine

grandmother of Ben

Ben’s symptoms continued. He was singing disturbing songs and punching himself. According to Cooper, Ben returned from a visit with his father — who had a four-days-a-week custody arrangement — with bruises and abrasions that he couldn’t explain. After returning from another visit, Ben asked Cooper for help going to the bathroom. When she discovered blood on his toilet paper, she rushed him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with anal fissures. 

The hospital diagnosis led to an inquiry from the police and a visit to the Yale Child Sexual Abuse Clinic, where Ben was interviewed. Cooper later shared a video of the interview with Newberger, whom she hired as a consultant. Newberger later suggested that Ben was showing signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Cooper also hired Joyanna Silberg, a psychologist and child-trauma specialist at Sheppard Pratt hospital in Maryland. To Silberg, Ben’s regressive, destructive and sexualized behavior indicated severe abuse. “This is how children cope when they don’t know how to handle the extremes of what they’re enduring,” she told Al Jazeera America. No one at the Yale Clinic had photographed Ben’s injuries, and after the initial visit, the bleeding continued. Cooper’s mother, Catherine, a nurse, decided they should take a photo themselves. “Anytime someone comes in the hospital, you take a picture,” Catherine says.

Meanwhile, Cooper’s ex-husband denied ever touching his son inappropriately. Cooper, his lawyer claimed, was the one harming their child.

The court agreed with him. In the judge’s telling, Cooper was a far more destructive force than her ex-husband: Cooper had “taken it upon herself to become the documentarian of record (for what) she believes is a righteous and just cause,” the judge said. “The downside of that, sincere as her belief may be, is that her conduct towards the child itself is abusive. The taking of that picture was abusive.”

The judge awarded sole custody to Ben’s father. Cooper would be allowed to see her son only under supervision.

In the months after the judge’s order, Ben’s erratic behavior continued. He seemed obsessed with violence — severed heads and hands were mentioned — and one day at his therapist’s office he described someone defecating in his mouth. A child psychiatrist, Kenneth Robson, was appointed to evaluate the case. Robson was a well-known authority on alienation with an impressive resume — two decades at Tufts University School of Medicine, a decade as director of child and adolescent psychiatry at a Hartford, Conn., hospital, an appointment at Yale University School of Medicine. According to court transcripts, Robson called Cooper a “French whore” during a phone call with a visitation worker, and he cited Gardner as an influence on his evaluation. James Smith, Cooper’s lawyer, asked that Robson be barred from evaluating the case. “The court said that he is a well-known expert who’s qualified as a child psychiatrist,” Smith says.

Robson, who did not respond to interview requests, completed his evaluation in the summer of 2011. In the report, which was provided to Cooper, he described Ben as a “complex diagnostic picture” — a precocious boy who was “bonded” to a “sturdy” father. Cooper, meanwhile, was damaged and dangerous. In a passage that recalled Gardner’s ideas about “vicarious gratification,” Robson wrote that when she told Ben to stop his sexualized outbursts, she was not only unconvincing but wanted him to continue. This “orgiastic” obsession with Ben’s genitals had so overstimulated the boy that he could no longer “contain the passions thus aroused,” he wrote, adding that, like “Moby Dick,” this story would end in tragedy. The damage would be to “(Ben’s) soul.” Robson recommended that sole custody remain with Ben’s father.

A decision reached last winter gave Cooper two supervised visits a week, plus five hours on Mother’s Day and Christmas. Cooper says that she is more than half a million dollars in debt and cannot afford to pay for supervised visitation; she has not seen Ben in more than a year. Randy Burton, a former Houston prosecutor who specialized in child sexual abuse and who founded Justice for Children, wasn’t familiar with Cooper’s case. After reviewing the facts for Al Jazeera America, he said that it showed how much law enforcement, the judiciary and mental-health experts have been “infected” by a “bogus theory” like PAS. “At every opportunity where the system could have intervened to protect the child,” it failed to do so, Burton wrote in an email. “What this pervasive pattern of denial in the presence of such overwhelming evidence of abuse indicates is just how far the system has been compromised by this junk science.” 

Catherine gave her daughter her life savings, $550,000, to help with the case. She later filed for bankruptcy. “I always believed in our justice system. That’s why I invested everything in it,” Catherine says. “Do I believe in it now? No, I don’t. I absolutely don’t.”

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